A Better Sense of Place

When we tell stories, verbally, in writing, or through other mediums, we attempt to transport our audience to a place or time where our story could conceivably happen. We have the characters, events and plot points that are vital to telling the story, but in many ways, the setting of a story informs the tone of what’s to come.

The same broad story, taken to new places and settings, can have new life. The change in setting can also alter the details of how the plot proceeds, so that a missing telegram in one becomes a received text message in another, and the actors change their paths accordingly.

There can also be reflections on the same, reducing the precise troubles that the characters have to something we can all identify with. A wizard exhausted by a confrontation with an enemy could be reflected by a foreman at a bar, tired from arguing with a corporate goon. A chase could be on horseback through a desert canyon, and it could be sitting at a pier beside a date, carefully choosing which winding paths of conversation will bring their love interest closer. A doomsday device is as threatening to the world as a grounding seems to an unruly child.

There are basic things that need to be done with our worlds to ensure we don’t shatter the illusion. Some of it is simple – unless it is a magical world, don’t use magic. An oppressive hegemony is unlikely to let its people openly rebel and brandish weapons, unless that suits its own nefarious purposes. You’re not trying to make the reader feel stupid by whipping out a twist that can’t be deduced in retrospect. The point of your story hinges on the main character being an incarnation of the previous unmentioned alien race’s even more unmentioned chief deity? Go away. As I said last time (previous link), trying to do so is the equivalent of printing a full page repeating HAHA I TRICKED YOU! throughout.

So yes, that’s been addressed previously on Fictioner’s Net 😛

There are other details that will pull someone out of your story, but they’re not ones that pull everyone out. A deputy fires six shots at the cattle rustler with his fully-loaded LeMat Revolver before he runs empty? Big deal (to most of us), but there’ll be someone that has that line pull them out of a story. Anecdotes about such things abound – doctors who can’t watch TV surgery, a cop who can’t take a detective novel seriously, and well, locals who hate what someone that’s never been to their city does to it in their books. I’m sure there are people that lived in New York or London that can offer a novel with an accurate representation of their cities, but I’m more than certain it tends toward generic city with a few globally-known landmarks in most cases.

That’s where I’m at right now, in that one of the places I’ve set things in, I’ve never been to.

When you live in Australia, the land of Oz to its friends, it’s easy to be drawn to an Emerald City.

I’m talking about Seattle.

Virtually, I’ve been spending a bit of time in Seattle. I’m at the point now where I can zoom in from the outside of Google Earth (globe view), and find the exact city/building that my prologue takes place. A lot of the locations I’ve pinpointed as “hey, that can be in my novel” are close to the freeway, existing in an N/S corridor that through the sheer power of coincidence, all happens to be close together. I had ideas for different bits and pieces, and it seems the more I research, the more it confirms I’m REALLY good at guessing.

With the internet in general, I can look up lingo/slang that gets used, talk to people from there, and otherwise make sure I get enough details right that my future-Seattle is conceivably related to the one people know. Being able to see different locations, look at the views through Google Maps and Google Earth, it’s fantastic.

Hail Hydra Google!

The first draft had a few things wrong, mostly because I hadn’t done any research beyond looking at the skyline and general location. It was originally (in my draft) an amorphous collection of streets and skyscrapers. I hadn’t even looked up climate details, nor really known much about the place. I’m much less ignorant about it now, which has come from continuing to look into details about the location.

I’m not sure how far any of this goes toward me having an accurate representation of Seattle. I have a few people I might be able to pick the brains of, and be able to run it by them. There’s a vast difference between exploring a place through the internet, and truly living in another city. Research might be able to get one (and in this instance, one is me) far enough. It’s only the people that have spent a significant amount of time there that should be able to tell otherwise, but I’d like my fabricated version of their home to feel consistent enough with reality that they can keep on reading.

I’ll have to do the same with my other locations – even Sydney, my home city and the one I still live in, feels undefined in terms of my writing. I don’t know where exactly the two major locations in Sydney are, but I’m not quite up to that either.

When you pick a location or collection of locations for your story, it might be a case of “it just is/that’s where it happens“, born from instinct. If it’s the case, research on the real-life versions of the places can make sure it IS where it happens in your story.

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