When learning to write, a lot of emphasis is placed on learning how to create believable and likeable characters (or indeed dislikeable ones if that’s what you’re aiming for). While I agree that this is, indeed, extremely important, I feel that it is also important that authors work hard to ensure that the reader gets a sense of place for the location where their stories take place. If a story comes across as if it could be set almost anywhere, I find I’m often left feeling something missing. I might not always be able to put my finger on it, but this is usually because the author hasn’t spent enough time making the locations as believable as the character.
Maybe I’m odd, but I feel that if a story is set in a specific location, this should come out in its telling. By this, I mean it shouldn’t feel that it could have taken place in almost any other city in the world. The author presumably chose London for a reason, and I want to at least get a hint as to what this might be. Ian Rankin is great example of this. It would be impossible to imagine Inspector Rebus skulking around the streets of any other city but Edinburgh. This comes across in the descriptions of the weather, the pubs, the streets and the people. The same goes for the writing of Iain Banks, and is especially clear in The Crow Road where the landscape of the west of Scotland is as integral to the story telling as the characters themselves.
And it’s not just contemporary fiction where this is important, the same is true in science fiction and fantasy. In fact, you could almost argue that it’s more important there. In these genres, you can’t rely on the familiar short-hands to help them identify with a location as you can in the contemporary genre. For a story set in New York, you can mention the skyline of Manhattan and be fairly confident of the picture that will appear in a reader’s mind without having to describe it. Compare that to a space colony on Alpha Centauri, or a hobbit hole in the Shire where your reader has no existing images to draw on. For these stories, you will need to make sure your words paint the right picture for them. I guess the same is also true for stories set in parts of the world people are less familiar with. You may be able to get away with less descriptions of the locations for a story set in London than one set in Glasgow, and when you get to somewhere like Inverness or Lerwick you are likely to have even less existing images in people’s minds to work with.
There’s a flip side to this though. If you want to break with the usual stereotypic views people hold for certain places, the better known a location is the harder you’ll have to work to change peoples’ preconceived ideas about it. Mention Glasgow and people will automatically think sandstone tenements or deprived and decrepit nineteen sixties housing schemes. Yet, not all of Glasgow is like this. You could choose to set a story in the leafy suburbs, but you’ll have your work cut out for you if that’s what you want your readers to imagine when they think of life in this city.
All this having been said, it can be a thin line between providing enough description to get a sense of the location and providing so much that it gets in the way of your story. You want your readers to get a feel for your chosen location without ever really noticing that this is what you’re doing. It’s hard to do, but if you can get it right, your writing will come to life in a way that it simply won’t without it.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.