When it comes to writing fiction, there are numerous advantages to creating a make-believe setting – whether it be a house, a street, a town or even a whole country.
Not only do you not need to worry about the little things like train and bus schedules, what time the sun sets, what kinds of flowers bloom where etc., you’ve also got free rein on all the buildings, the streets, the municipal systems, even the type of government.
Good writers spend lots of time checking police procedures, technology and how real places look, feel and operate. When you make everything up – you save on all that research. Okay, you still need to use you mind to imagine everything but no-one can ever turn round to you and say you got something wrong – because it just can’t be wrong!
Unless you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you don’t need to go so far as to invent everything. Many writers choose to invent just the town (and the people in it) and leave the country and state and its political system intact. This is good way to create veracity without being a slave to the truth.
One major disadvantage is that readers have gotten used to modern fiction being set in real places – they expect it. Therefore, if you present a fictional town, some readers will baulk and cry: well, if that’s not real, how can I begin to believe anything else this author tells me!
Some readers may feel cheated that you, as the author, are playing God and consequently can shape the ‘rules’ in your world. This may hinder their willing suspension of disbelief.
Plus, there’s the need to identify. People like things to hold on to – things that feel real. Sometimes one of the advantages of setting your story in New York, Paris or London can be the reader is filling in the details for you. Place a reader in a nebulous, unfamiliar environment and they’ll feel lost unless you describe the place fully – which may in turn hinder your ability to pace the action.
Stephen King’s Castle Rock is a very familiar place – he uses it in many of his novels. What many people don’t realize is that this place is completely imaginary. Sure, it’s based on several places in Maine but it’s designed to be a credible backdrop – rather than a real place.
Kathy Reichs uses real Canadian cities as the backdrops to her novels – describing them with a freshness that makes them very real – especially to readers who may never have experienced them first hand.
JK Rowling uses a combination of real English places like London and Oxford and imaginary locations like Hogwarts to root her reality in real life but also give her the latitude to take her readers on a magical adventure.
There’s no right or wrong way to do these things. Only one rule is important. Whether your location is real or imaginary, it must be believable.
So – if you’re tempted to invent a city, where do you start?
Make a map. Start small – with just one street and move outward from there.
Most of my stories (three novels and about a dozen short stories) are set in a fictional town – loosely based on the place I grew up in – called West Ridge. I have a map – it’s just a sheet of A4 I have taped near my desk. Sometimes I will add to it if I decide I want one of my characters to take a walk round a park or drive over a bridge, or whatever. The best part is that it’s organic – it grows larger and more complex with every story.
It has bars, clubs, shops, roads, hills, rivers, housing estates, statues, parks, fountains and – best of all, it’s as real to me as the keys on this laptop!
Invent your own city if you like. It can be a lot of fun.
This article is written by Rob Parnell. Visit his website at www.easywaytowrite.com