Whether you write romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction or a sub genre, all fiction requires a believable setting. I tend to write character driven fantasy and learning to establish the setting has been an adventure in creativity. In fact, it's the reason behind my creative writing book Pumping Your Muse. In it, I developed a series of exercises that spurred me to consider aspects of a secondary world that may otherwise be overlooked.
Establishing anchors from the real world to your fictional world is key to making your setting believable, whether it is vastly different from reality or just a little different. An anchor is an element readers can relate to that links the real world to your secondary reality. In Beyond the Fifth Gate I established a rural, pre-industrial setting where the people were divided over issues of faith. Amid the setting we learn about family ties, ancient prophecies, divided leadership, a simple life that is ripped apart when a large insectoid race invades and conquers. Young people are taken captive and carried off in a cage on the back of a cart. The anchor—family relationships torn apart; freedoms stripped; it creates a need that transcends from reality to fantasy. This is an emotional anchor. Humans lose their freedom and fight to get it back and the quest is on.
Geographically, the Beyond the Fifth Gate setting challenged me times five. The original setting is the pre-industrial world invaded by a sentient insectoid race. The quest requires the protagonist, Elita, to travel through five mystical gates to free her people. Each gate leads to a different world and Elita has to accomplish her quest during a planetary alignment. She has one week. If she doesn't make it, she'll be trapped in a strange world between gates--for the next 50 years.
In this story, not only did I have to provide anchors from this reality to the fictional reality, but additional anchors were needed to tie one fictional world to the next as the main character traveled through the gates. The setting put parameters in place for the quest. Planets line up in dawn's light and mark the beginning of the quest for freedom. Planets are something we can relate to on this side of reality, and these planets act as an anchor from one world to the next. As they fall out of alignment, they work like the sands in an hourglass to let the reader know time is running out. This aspect of setting is used to add tension, conflict, and keep it clear in the readers' minds that the five worlds are linked.
For readers to accept the stranger aspects of a secondary world you must establish believable physics--the science of matter and energy and their interactions. If something works differently than the real world, you have to make the science or magic clear—not only that it does happen but how it happens. It has to work in the reader's mind. For example, the powers of Kamali are established early on in Beyond the Fifth Gate. When Kamali is present physics change. The star beats brighter and brighter…the floor thrums and…well I better not say too much because I wouldn't want to be a spoiler. Readers know that this deity plays an instrumental part in the opening of the gates and that the gates do lead to other worlds. But they also grow to understand that each portal works differently. Setting continues to play an important role, too, when Elita must bring something along with her from each world if she hopes to defeat the isectoids.
Along with physics, other specifics readers relate to in regards to setting include things like:
As you develop these aspects of your world stop and ask yourself "why". Why is this government in place? Why do the people react to it the way they do? When the insectoid race takes over Elita's world, they are the new government. The opening scene establishes not only the world's setting but the "why" behind the reason humans don't honor the government. Lines are drawn, readers take sides and they learn to watch for the light to appear in the eastern foothills. Effective setting works with the characters to move the story forward and answers the question why.