What comes first, the characters or the plot?
That seems to be the age old question for fiction writers, and there really doesn't seem to be any right or wrong answer. Some characters pop fully formed into an author's mind...they just need to figure out what these characters are doing. Other authors get a fantastic idea for a plot, but need to figure out who's doing those things.
Plot and character are definitely very important. Without them, you'd be missing the two most crucial elements of commercial fiction.
But what about setting? Can you just plop your characters down in any old place and end up with the same story? Or does setting become another "character"? Can it change your plot?
I just finished reading a fabulous historical called "And Then He Kissed Her" by Laura Lee Guhrke. I picked it up at the Avon signing at RWA, and I'm definitely planning to go buy more of Ms. Guhrke's books now. I'm hooked!
This one was so cute. The hero is a viscount who owns a newspaper and publishing house. The heroine is his secretary, who dreams of being an author. After he rejects her fourth manuscript and she learns he actually never bothered to read any of them, she quits in a bout of frustration, and begins working for his rival as an etiquette columnist.
Had this been a contemporary, I probably never would have picked it up. Not that I don't love contemporaries -- I do. But it's a fairly straight forward premise. Cute, but nothing really that stands out.
So what made this one stand out? Easy. It was set in Victorian England. Bingo. Instant conflict and it immediately intrigues me. So few ladies worked during that era, and the idea of a "girl-bachelor" was so interesting that I had to pick it up.
What other examples can you think of where simply changing the setting can totally change the tone of a book?