Another way to reinforce conflict in a story is to use the historical significance of certain settings. Suppose you decide to set a story in Boston's North End. You know the area well, and you believe its rich history will add interest and atmosphere to a story about a brother and sister. You're right—the setting does have potential, as long as you include its history in a way that naturally fits the story. Avoid presenting historical details for their own sake:
Tom snaked his way through the winding streets of Boston's North End, his throat constricting with the news he had yet to deliver. He couldn't remember where Audrey lived; perhaps if he kept driving something would begin to look familiar. He made another turn. The tidy buildings—vestiges of a Puritan vision that began in 1630 with John Winthrop—gave the now prosperous state capital the look of a little village.
The history here detracts from your story. Just as your readers begin to wonder about the news Tom has to deliver, you subject them to a travel-book aside about Colonial America. It feels like an interruption. What if you used the history to magnify something that's going on inside the character?
Tom snaked his way through the winding streets of Boston's North End, his throat constricting with undelivered news. He leaned against the steering wheel, peering around and through the tidy Colonial buildings, searching for a landmark. He knew only that she lived near the Old North Church, where Paul Revere had once ridden frantically over these same crooked streets, sounding the alarm.
Here, Paul Revere's "frantic" ride gives an outer shape to Tom's inner turmoil. By evoking Paul Revere's famous ride, you imply that the news Tom has yet to deliver is bad, or at least calamitous in some way. We also get the feeling that Tom would like to be able to shout out his news the way Paul Revere did, but his constricted throat shows us that for some reason he can't. History works beautifully here, giving us not only an interesting glimpse of historical Boston, but an insightful glimpse into the main character.
A historical setting can reinforce a story by illuminating theme, revealing character, enriching plot. A famous battlefield might enrich a story about a cutthroat business deal or a cracking marriage; the town of Bethlehem could add humor or pathos to a story about a carpenter's wife on her first bus tour. If you choose a setting that readers readily recognize as a historical landmark, you have more or less obligated yourself to use the history of that place to illuminate parts of your story.
SETTINGS LARGE AND SMALL
Some descriptions of setting are big and sweeping, some minute and compact. You have to decide which kind works best for a particular story. Do you need the whole forest, or just one tree? In a story about a young boy feeling dwarfed by his boisterous family, the mountain setting should probably be large:
He lay in his bed, staring out at the malevolent sweep of mountain that ringed the valley.
If the boy feels strong and powerful, the same setting might take on a more accessible quality:
From here he imagined he could make out the starry shapes of wild azaleas that blazed along the slope.
Almost any large setting can be made small—that is, readily accessible to the readers—if you attend to detail. The pebbly shingles of the town's black roofs. The green bottle floating in the middle of the ocean. The Bloomingdale's bag tangled in a Central Park tree. With these details, you guide the readers' eyes to the specific and away from the general landscape.
PROBLEMS WITH "ACTUAL" PLACES
When my first novel, Secret Language, came out early in 1993, I was asked by a local deejay to come in for a radio interview. The novel is set in Portland, Maine, where I live, and contains occasional references to streets and landmarks in the city. One of the first questions the disc jockey (who had read and liked the book) asked was this: "About your main character, Faith—is her house the one at the end of Norwood Street?" When I told him that Faith's house existed only in my imagination, he seemed disappointed, for he was sure he had located exactly the house in the novel. Everything fit, he insisted: the shape of the lawn, the bird feeders hanging from the trees, the porch and walk. Of course I was pleased that my invented place seemed so real to him, but I was also bemused by the problem of putting fictional people in real places.
Beware the Locals One problem with describing a setting that is real is that reality changes. In the interest of authenticity, you might move to Seattle for a year and write an entire novel there, meticulously recording street names and architectural styles and common surnames and typical weather. By the time the book appears two or three (or ten) years later, however, the Good Times Deli on Washington Street has been torn down and turned into Tom's Texaco. Carver Avenue, the scene of a head-on collision that begins Part II of the book, is now a oneway street. There is no overestimating the glee some readers experience when coming upon geographical glitches in their home turf. "Your book was wonderful," they write. "However, there are no middle schools in Greenfield. We go from elementary to junior high." Your admirable impulse to create accurate descriptions has blind-sided you by delivering exactly the opposite effect you intended. Instead of wowing your readers with accuracy, you've made them fretful and petty.
Fictionalizing Reality Why not fictionalize an actual setting? You can make up a neighborhood and place it "near" a familiar landmark:
Vernon's house on Drake Street was a ten-minute walk from Harvard University. The proximity of that famous institution was evident in Vernon's neighborhood only by the occasional plastic bag from the Harvard Coop that got caught in the stiff tentacles of the naked, spindly trees or mashed into soggy, unrecognizable lumps between the sidewalks' yawning cracks.
Notice that the neighborhood is meticulously described with no mention of its exact location. (Be sure to check a map to make sure there is no "real" Drake Street anywhere near Harvard.) Your readers don't know whether the Drake Street neighborhood is ten minutes north, south, east, or west of Harvard; they understand that even though Harvard exists in real life, you are making up the rest of the map. They may even assume that the fictional neighborhood is based on an area they know, but because the street names aren't real, they can't check your facts against a city map. The familiar landmark lends authenticity to your setting, but the rest of the place is yours to do with as you wish.
You can do this in reverse, too: fictionalize the landmark but make everything else accurate. This technique is useful if the landmark in question—a university, a museum, a church, a branch of government—is going to be used in the story. The main character might be the college chancellor, for example, or the pastor of the church, or the curator of the museum. To avoid dragging actual persons into your fiction, you might try something like the following:
From her top-floor apartment on Morning Street, she could see all the way down Munjoy Hill, a ziggurat of rooftops that ended with the commanding spire of St. Mary's rising from the foot of the hill into the bleak winter sky.
This setting is familiar to anyone who lives in Portland, Maine, except that the church at the foot of Munjoy Hill is not "St. Mary's," it is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Why bother to change the name? Let's assume this is the beginning of a story that involves characters who work in and around the church and school. You certainly don't want to confuse actual persons—the president of the parish council, for example—with fictional characters. And you don't want people chiding you for getting the number of windows wrong, or putting the altar at the wrong end of the church, or abolishing the 10 a.m. mass for one that begins at 9:30. The solution is to fictionalize a local landmark simply by changing its name. By doing so, you make a pact with your readers: I'm borrowing the church for a little while, okay? Readers are more than happy to make the loan, and if you're lucky, the fictionalized landmark will become as real to them as the actual one.