Location, Location, Location
By ICY SEDGWICK
Writers often spend a great deal of their time concentrating on developing authentic dialogue (spoken by fleshed out, 3D characters), and on creating a coherent plot, contained within a sensible structure. All well and good, but how often do we give setting, or location, only the most cursory of nods?
Setting is by far one of the most important parts of storytelling. Think how many stories begin with “In a faraway kingdom…” or “In a galaxy far, far away…” Location, or setting, not only helps define genre (‘the Wild West’ informs the Western, while noir is often set in grimy or shadowy urban landscapes), it also gives us a sense as to why things happen the way that they do – The Thing just wouldn’t work outside of the Arctic, and nor would Twister be even remotely plausible if it was set in the Home Counties of England. Beyond that, the setting can almost become a character in itself – Mordor is a physical manifestation of the otherwise absent Sauron, while the island and its moods in Lord of the Flies reflects the transformation of the boys.
So how do you go about writing a good setting, or choosing a location?
If you’re writing fantasy, you essentially have carte blanche to write whatever you want. Alice in Wonderland would be a perfect example! Science fiction in space is open to almost boundless possibilities, and even science fiction on Earth can be bent whichever way you want. Futuristic settings, or alternate realities, let you go crazy with the invention. I’d recommend Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books for a good example of alternate realities. Swords’n’sorcery-style fantasy requires the kind of geography associated with the likes of Lord of the Rings – think castles, forests, plains, etc. Fairly generic, but as you don’t need to have visited, you get to decide what goes where.
Of course, if you’re writing the kind of fantasy wherein weird stuff happens to ordinary people, then you’ll want to ground your story in a more realistic setting. After all, the weird happening becomes all the more weird when set against a mundane background. In this case, you’ll need more of a grasp of where your story is taking place. You can set it in your hometown and just change the names, or you can keep the setting intact. It helps to keep things believeable – one of my many problems with 28 Weeks Later was how wantonly they screwed with London geography. Two of the characters are supposed to get to Wembley from Westminster via the tube tunnels, despite the fact that they’d need to change lines on the way! Once you annoy someone in that way, it’s difficult to persuade them to further invest in your story. You’ve broken the ‘suspension of disbelief’. These issues equally apply to other genres outside of fantasy.
But what if you want to set your story somewhere that you’ve never visited? Google Maps or Street View can give you a good insight into what a place looks like, how the streets are laid out, and how people interact with the space around them. Of course, you could always go down the Neil Gaiman route, and give your location the Neverwhere treatment – translate place names into their literal meanings (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it as a masterclass on location). It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been as the places are given a whole new meaning by you.
Of course, you could always treat yourself to a holiday and visit that pretty Alpine town you want to use as a backdrop to a 1920s murder mystery…
Blown far from her Northern homeland, Icy now lives and works in old London town.
She’s only 27 but she remembers the days when she wrote stories in crayon. She likes writing about everything from grave robbers to telepathic parrots, though she just began a novel about a superhero.She spends her days running an office, and her nights hunched over her laptop. She dispensed with sleep some time ago. Icy has had various stories published online, and has just released her first e-book collecting the episodes of her very first web serial. It’s a tough job…