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| It can be difficult to think of a setting. It is, after all, a place - in your head. Knowledge and geography help. But ... When writing fiction, and you are using a setting that really exists, is it ok to add made-up things to that setting to make it more exotic and unusual?
Today I am here with a slightly different format. One lonely reject... was kind enough to provide me with one of his articles.
Grab a notebook, and let‘s get started!
Of course it is. It is your world, after all.
The “write what you know” dictate is vital here. If you make mistakes in the geography of a real location, a huge chunk of your audience will know and they will come down on you. For that reason, many writers set their stories in the locations they are familiar with. They might have grown up there, live there, have relatives living there, or something else.
The major advantage of using a setting you know very well is that you have the geography in your head already. This means your preplanning for settings is done by your lifetime of experience. Sure, you might change a street name here or there, put a Church where the hotel is, put a cemetery where the shopping mall is, change the name of the place, but if it is your town, you know it, and that familiarity will come through in the characters, and that in turn will be conveyed to a reader.
However, be careful with these little changes, and if it is a book that gets published, indicate that changes have been made for the sake of a work of fiction in the notes section near the front, or in that bit that tells readers that “…all characters are fictitious…” This will generally keep critics at bay. I had to ddo this in Invasice Species; my publisher demanded it.
Most of my stories are set in Australia, and that really does help set the characters, and ground them in my reality. I also find that if I take the stories to rural Australia, the sense of isolation makes the horror (my preferred genre) all the more tangible. It does also tend to mean that, for an overseas market, they apparently have the feel of somewhere different, which is a selling point.
But this does mean geography is important. An author from the USA had written a horror story set in the late 1800s. At one point, the characters come to Australia. They travel by horse and cart from Melbourne to Adelaide in a night. Say it was the dead of winter, that'd be maybe 12 hours. So? you may ask. It takes 7 to 8 hours by car nowadays with decent paved roads, travelling at the current speed limit of 110 km/h (70mph). That made me go, "Huh?" I put it down to not understanding how big Australia is for some-one in another country (we're talking pre-Internet days here, the 1990s).
A few years later I was reading a book in a different genre by an Australian author. She had a couple drive from Perth to Sydney in a day. That's about 4000km (2500 miles), so averaging 165 km/h (100mph) without stops for petrol, without slowing for going through towns, without eating anything, without going to the toilet, without getting caught by the over-zealous NSW police, after the car had already been described as "20 year old second hand Datsun" (or words to that effect). That is not happening.
Recently, in one of my stories, I had a family travel from Manchester to Hastings in the UK, a country I have never been to. It's about 450km, so, thinking Australia, I said it'd take 3 to 4 hours. Then I was chatting to a friend online, and asked her. She said it would be closer to a 5 or 6 hour journey because of the speed limits, toll roads, towns to go through, everything else. Those extra 2 hours actually changed what I needed for the story, so I had to do a complete rewrite of the events.
These may not seem like much, I admit, but in this modern global world of writing and publishing, you need to ensure all your readers are going to understand the reality of what you are writing.
Don’t forget thinks like cell phones, mobile phones, smartphones. They're so pervasive that to leave them out or ignore them makes the work feel like it's too unreal, or that it’s set 20 years ago. Keep up to date with technology and what is a part of the wider world.
Then there are Pseudo-Real Settings. These are places that have been created by the writer, but exist in real places. King’s Derry stories, and Lovecraft’s Innsmouth fall into this category. This way, the writer has a real setting but the town or towns they have created are purely creations of the imagination.
I’ll use a town I made up for one of my published novels. I live on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, and if you follow the east coast of the peninsula the towns in order are Clinton, Price, Tiddy Widdy Beach and Ardrossan. So I placed my town of Wills Creek south of Price, at the southern end of the Wills Creek Conservation Park. In reality, there is nothing there. I based the set-up of the town on a section of Clinton, drew a map, including an small caravan park, a deserted shop and an old church, created the natural geography – extra trees and cliffs – and then set the big final battle in the town, destroying half of it in the process.
This has all the advantages of a real setting with the added bonus you can put things where they need to be. Again, my recommendation would be draw yourself a map, and then take Google maps, print off the area you want, and work out how to fit the town in. Personally, I find it best to put my made-up town where nothing exists; renaming and changing an existing place has some issues of its own (like Gotham and Coast City in the DC comics), but can also be done. There is a little more freedom in going this way.
When looking at historical settings, this can actually be easier, because finding the real geography of a town a hundred, two hundred or more years ago can be very difficult unless you have access to a large library in the area concerned. So, instead off setting your Georgian romance in Cardiff, set it in the much smaller Car-Wynn-Eld, a day’s horse-ride from Cardiff. You can have all the historical detail you need, without panicking over whether a certain street existed during the reign of George III.
Of course, this is again, my opinion. You are writing, in the end, a work of fiction. So long as you put your disclaimer at the start, it is fiction. Having said that, it is often best not to change famous sites. Does it matter that Broadway and Amsterdam in New York City don’t meet, but you have that as a major intersection? Yes, it does. Does it matter that you have Montague and Wright Roads in Valley View meet, when they are actually parallel? Probably only for the people who live there (and that could upset your audience). Does it matter that your made-up streets of Lincoln and Washington meet in Peterborough? No – you made the streets up, and you have a disclaimer.
Of course, it is your story, and you can do what needs to be done to make your story work. But the points about distances travelled with time mentioned in the previous section still hold true. The laws of physics and the size of countries do not change.
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