L is for Location

005_021Choosing a location for our writing can be one of the most challenging, and personal, decisions of the novel-writing experience. Often times the setting invokes a certain tone (would you rather write a romance in Paris, or Detroit?), or has cultural relevance (writing a story about a child who experiences racial bullying would be easier in Mississippi than, say, Washington state). I can’t tell you how to choose a location, because that is a very personal choice…but I can give you some tips for giving that location the justice it deserves.

*Note: Most of this assumes that you are writing a contemporary novel, as the steps would be more involved for a historical one. It also assumes you are writing non-fantasy, although some of the steps would still be relevant.

If Your Location is Based on a Real Place

If your story location is a real place, it will be imperative to keep your facts in order. You’re going to need to know where things are, how to get there, and a little bit about how locals think vs. tourists. Ideally, this is a place you’ve been (or lived) so you can describe your personal reactions to walking down Michigan Ave at sunset, or braving the traffic in Los Angeles. But if not, there are still plenty of resources.

  • French_Quarter_MapDownload some maps. You don’t need to know them inside and out, but you do need them available. There’s nothing worse than someone going from one end of a busy city to another in 5 minutes because the author didn’t understand correct distance. I remember reading a story once where a character made a left turn onto a road that actually ran parallel to the road he was on. It put me off the book entirely.

  • Pick up a travel book or three for the city/area you’re writing about. No, seriously. Yes, you can get this stuff all online. But having the book in front of you is quicker and easier. You have your maps, for one, but you also have restaurant guides, things to do, and usually some notes regarding what locals like vs. tourists. They go into detail about the neighborhoods, travel times, ways to get around, and costs of living. There’s descriptions, pictures, and all sorts of things writers will go nuts over. I have five different travel guides on New Orleans at my writing desk, and I use all of them. Even if you have traveled to a place, these will come in handy.

  • Read books from local authors. Pay specific attention to authors who use a location more than once, or authors who live in that location. The example I’ll use is one I use a lot, which is Anne Rice and New Orleans. She not only lived there many years, but she wrote about her own house! Her descriptions of New Orleans were then not only accurate, as a local, but also very vivid. Local authors tend to want to do their city justice, and you can often trust their experiences. Another example would be Stephen King with Maine. When I moved there for a couple of years, I already felt like I had seen everything through a different set of eyes once before, because of his writing.

  • Bookmark an almanac site. If your story is set in Maine and you want it to snow in April, make sure it snows in April sometimes (for the record: it does). If your story involves farming, or any other trade that involves the seasons, this will be invaluable.

  • Bookmark more sites. Find sites that talk about the trees, flowers, commerce, architecture, and other important physical details. Make sure your begonia is not in bloom too early, and that it can even grow there to begin with! And when you’re trying to plant something in Georgia, remember that you’re going to have go through layers of red clay first. Know what kinds of architecture are used for houses there. Know some of the local colloquialisms, sayings, expressions. Make sure they aren’t rife with stereotypes while you’re at it 😉

  • Plan a visit! Yes, yes, I know. This is not always a realistic option. But if you can, do. The experiences of walking, riding local transport, eating local delicacies…the sights, smells, the way the air feels. Your visceral reaction. Those are not things that can be replicated in a travel book.

If Your Location is Entirely Fictional

Well, this is a heck of a lot easier, right?? Kind of. You still have to maintain accuracy…but the beauty of it is that you now have full creative power on what is contained in that accuracy. The trick is…well maintaining it.

  • Draw a map! Just because your town/city is made up, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need consistency. Your readers will very quickly pick up on characters who turn down one street to get to the grocery store in one chapter, but in another the street name changes. Making a map will also help you judge accurate distances and ensure that when you say “Sally lived three blocks from Joe,” you don’t later accidentally have Sally go out her front door and walk three houses down to Joe’s.

  • Respect regional details. If you’re writing a fictional city in a real state or region, you will still need to follow some of the advice up top regarding being true to the facts. For example, if you’re writing about a rural town in upstate New York, try looking into some other rural towns in Upstate New York to make sure your architecture, culture, vegetation, etc is correct.begonia-green-rose

  • Flesh out your world. Give it some color. If you’re writing about a small town, for example, create a mayor and a location for his office. Develop your restaurants and local hangouts, and the places where the kids go. You might not even use a lot of it directly, but you might indirectly. “Jim walked past Martha’s Flowers and saw Martha in the window and waved. He kept walking, past The Watering Hole, his old hangout, and finally stepped through the doors of True Value Hardware.” Alright, that sentence was boring, but you get the drift. The world is gaining color.

These are only a few tips for keeping your worlds straight. The most important things to remember are accuracy and consistency, because nothing kills a story more than a rogue errant detail in the setting.

Anyone have others to add?


25 thoughts on “L is for Location

  1. Great advice. My current project takes place in two different locations in the mid-80s that I have never been to, so I have some serious research to do. Not sure what existed in those places 25 years ago.

    1. That’s a good point…even 25 years ago things can be drastically different. Where I live in Oregon, half the commercial zones here were farmland 25 years ago.

      You might try seeing if you can google old city maps from that timeframe. Usually the city assessor’s office keeps those available to the public.

  2. I normally end up having my fictional locations ‘inspired by’ places I know well in real life. My NaNo novel takes place in London, which I lived in for 3 years, but because I’m a geeky sci-fi writer, I get to make it all high tech and fantastical. But as you suggest, travel guides and maps are some of my greatest resources even for places I have managed to visit (my memory can be terrible sometimes!). Great post!

    1. That’s the beauty of fiction, getting to bend locations to your whim 🙂 And I think most readers are willing to suspend disbelief once you get some of the basics right.

  3. This is very true. My book takes place 500 years after World War III… which lasted 40 years (or something like that). A lot of the villages are fictional and the landscape has changed because of the war, so drawing a map is going to be difficult (despite the fact my drawing abilities would be a 0 out of 10).

    So something to add may be to do some research on the time-period, because that can also take a huge effect on location. As the person above me commented…

    1. Great point about researching the time period…there are so many details (like, you wouldn’t want to have someone going to service at St. Paul’s Cathedral before it was built) that could be very relevant to the accuracy of your setting.

      And don’t worry, my map drawing skills are also terrible. But no one has to see it 🙂

  4. Excellent! I was just reading a book about this that I will be reviewing in a few days and you certainly nailed it. I hadn’t ever thought of using travel books. This is why i place my characters in areas where I am familiar. You have once again broadened my horizons!

    1. I started using them almost by accident. I had taken a trip to New Orleans and had used the books religiously the entire time. When I started to write again after my return, I found myself remembering “oh, that was in the book,” and then eventually the books started replacing the internet for most of my research. I’ve really found them to be invaluable. While I still use the internet extensively, I don’t think I could do it without my books!

  5. I am enamored of fantasy settings that are the real Earth but only vaguely recognizable. The popular one du jour would be Panem from the Hunger Games, where the only clues are that it “used to be North America” and that District 12 “used to be called Appalachia,” which makes sense with its coal mining; but the Capital is set in front of tall mountains, which evokes Denver– yet I don’t want to imagine the evil Capital being here. Funny how you can make those kind of attachments.

    Then there is The Walking Dead being set in my hometown of Atlanta. I only recently began watching the first season, and it was SO weird to me seeing people dodging zombies on streets I instantly recognize (I wonder how much effort it must have taken to clear the streets to shoot those scenes).

    Then there is Middle-earth itself, asserted to be prehistoric Europe. The Shire was in what became England, of course, though it wasn’t separated from the mainland. Mordor was near what is now the Black Sea. Or so I have read. The Hadarim being darker-skinned men from the “south” (with oliphants) fits in. Then in the Fourth Age the “world was changed”… but I am sure you already know all this and could tell me much more. 😉

    Stephen King has made a gazillion dollars setting nearly every novel in the same place. The only one I’ve read was the last, 11/22/63. It shits from Maine to Texas, but the real art was how realistically he portrayed the time period of the late 50s-early 60s. It felt hauntingly authentic, evoking the simplicity of the “Land of Ago” as the narrator calls it without ignoring its dark side.

    I think this is all wonderful advice, but I have a fetish for maps. Students sometimes ask why if I’m an English teacher, why do I have these two big maps (oversize laminated National Geographic, US and World) on my wall? They represent possiblility, so many other places to go and explore, perhaps, and at the same time the interconnectedness of it all.

    Perhaps I should avoid commenting at 2 a.m., they turn into essays. Bottom line, excellent article. I admire how helpful you strive to be. 🙂

    1. Hey, its cool to write essays as long as they’re interesting 🙂 Your posts are always a fun read.

      I hear you on the dystopian spin on our own world…it forces your imagination to reconcile with what you think you know, and the results are usually more fun than pure fantasy or pure fact. I’m a huge King fan (‘f’ the haters), but it took me awhile before I tackled 11/22/63 simply because I felt the subject of JFK’s final moments had been done so many times that there was nothing new (and certainly nothing interesting) to add. But I grabbed it for a long trip to Romania, and boy…am I glad I did. One of his best, and it had me sitting on the edge of my seat the entire read. And yes, the setting was perfectly done.

      Its funny you said that about maps…I’m obsessed with them. I have a huge map of Middle Earth in my home office, and another of the US. And then I also have old globe from the 70s (I call it my Commie-globe) that still has the USSR and most of the Eastern block has different names. Czechoslovakia was still one country. It’s a gem, and I adore it.

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