Okay, so the moment has arrived – it’s finally time to begin your incredible new project. The idea for this masterwork, previously a tiny, dry seed sleeping in your mind, has suddenly begun to sprout. Urgent stems have thrust their way into the sunlight and reached for the sky, buds have formed, leaves have unfurled, roots and tendrils have surged in all directions at once, and the whole thing is growing at a geometric rate. New characters are introducing themselves to you on a regular basis, intriguing plot twists are occurring to you at odd moments of the day, and you’re murmuring stray lines of dialogue to yourself as you fall asleep at night. Creatively speaking, the green light is definitely on, and all in all, you really couldn’t be happier.
But there’s a potential problem on the horizon – where do you set the damn thing?
Unless you exclusively write a series in which a small number of central characters prowl around within the same limited setting, one with which you’re intimately familiar or culturally linked (like Ian Rankin and Edinburgh, for example), or unless the story is uniquely linked with a particular global location – a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, or a plot to destroy Radio City Music Hall – then this is something you may have to consider quite carefully.
Do you set it where you actually live, or in a fictional place that strongly resembles the place where you live? Well, you could – at least then you’d be sure to have a convincing grasp of the geographic and environmental background to the story, and be able to paint a convincing picture of the local landmarks and nail the local accents, et al. On the other hand, if you live in a small village and your story is specifically concerned with the illicit sexual shenanigans or illegal practises behind the bland public face of a small village, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. People who know you, and know you write, already assume (falsely, of course) that anything you produce is only a thinly disguised version of your own depraved life, or else a jealous attack on theirs, so you don’t need to feed their suspicions and paranoia any more than you already have.
Okay, then how about you set your story in a city far, far away? Good idea. But which city? London, Paris, Rome, New York, Boston, Delhi, Peking, Adelaide?
Do you know any of these places well enough to get under the skin of the characters which inhabit them? Have you lived there, or even visited long enough to understand how the infrastructure of the place works, or how its particular racial dynamic might shape or otherwise affect your story? Or do you take the Rough Guide approach to research and get all your detail and colour from the internet and other writer’s novels – and run the risk of making foolish mistakes, a literary tourist with your camera around your neck and your mouth hanging open? So dangerous, so very easy to make a calamitous error. Think of all those Hollywood movies with sequences filmed in London, where the hero runs out of Regent’s Park and straight into Trafalgar Square.
Or, or, or…
Do you simply take the next step along the fictional trail? Your characters are fictional, your storylines are fictional, so why not your settings too? I dare say there’s not many Sci-Fi writers with timeshares in the Crab Nebula, but plenty will have set up home there over the years. Lots of writers have their own fictional lands, cities, and towns. Tolkien had Middle-Earth. Ruth Rendell has Kingsmarkham. Stephen King has Castle Rock (and others), and so many other writers besides. Even I have one.
At first glance this seems like the easiest option, allowing the writer complete creative freedom, and the power of a town planner suddenly gifted God-like abilities. And it’s fun playing with the almost infinite options, like a purely literary Sim City. But there’s a downside to this power, too. A purely fictional downside, true, although one creepy enough to have suggested the idea for this blog.
Actually, I lied earlier – it’s not me who has a fictional town, it’s the writer who’s the main character in the horror novel, COMEBACK, which I’m currently editing. The writer’s city is called Eldritch, a dark, horrific plague-pit of a town, and during the course of the novel, he actually gets to visit it, which is when he is able to see at first hand all the terrible mistakes it’s possible to make when you start playing God.
Imagine all those tiny mistakes, omissions, liberties taken under the banner of poetic licence, and the all-too convenient literary shortcuts suddenly made flesh and blood, stone and mortar. Without the imagination of the readers to plug the gaps and fabricate the background detail, the only things which exist are those things the writer put into words, and nothing more. Nothing at all. Imagine the consequences and repercussions…
No spoilers to those of you who might want to read the novel at some point, but there is one moment I’d like to share, because it gave me a real chill when I re-read it myself just recently: at one point my writer is being driven across his city, and the car passes a junior school he created purely for one paragraph-long scene in one of his Eldritch novels, where a helicopter passed overhead and all the children in the playground far below waved up at it.
A quick, throwaway detail, right? Just a bit of colour? That’s what my writer thought, too.
But looking out of the car window, the writer realises that the children are still there, years later, imprisoned behind the school fence, locked out from the shelter the school might have offered, because that’s where he left them. He further realises that because he described their faces only from the helicopter pilot’s POV as featureless ovals, that’s exactly what his creations have – featureless faces, no eyes, noses, mouths or ears. They’re blind, deaf, mute, trapped forever, but still waving, waving forever more – all because his fictional world was imperfectly realised.
Could you live in one of your own novels? After that, I’m not sure I could.