The endless stream of property shows that clog up many of our TV channels constantly stress the importance of location. What’s true for houses is equally true for fiction, the setting of your book can be as much a part of its success as the plot and the characters.
Not only does it form the foundation of the story, the location also helps to build its atmosphere. Depending on the type of story you’re writing you might choose to have a completely fictitious location or opt to use a real place. There are pros and cons to both these approaches.
If you make the location up no one can tell you you’ve got things wrong, but on the other hand you have to remain consistent and stick to the structure and rules you’ve created. This is equally, if not more, true when you’re writing fantasy or science fiction. If you’re not true to the rules of your world your story will lose credibility. Even in this type of story you can use actual places to give the reader a sense of familiarity. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter stories for example are anchored in real places like London and Oxford as well as fictitious locations.
It’s also all too easy to get carried away when creating fictional locations. A lot of novice writers spend so much time lovingly describing their worlds that the important part, the actual story, starts to get lost. This is easy to fall foul of in historical fiction too. If you spend a lot of time researching your setting, it’s tempting to include tons of detail that isn’t relevant to the story. The trick is to add enough for atmosphere but no so much that you sound like an encyclopaedia.
Using a real location might seem easier but this brings its own problems. It’s likely that some of your readers will have been there so you need to make sure you get the details right. In the past this might have meant a visit, but modern technology like Google Street View means you can get a pretty good idea of how a place looks from the comfort of your computer. There’s still a lot to be said for getting the feel of a location first hand, however. If you don’t understand what a place is like you won’t convey that to the reader. All too often authors throw away the advantage of a setting by not exploiting it, the result is a generic story that could be set anywhere.
Most of us will end up using a subtle blend of fact and fiction, using a real place but changing its name, adding a made up street to a real town, or an extra house to a real street. Conan Doyle’s 221B Baker Street being perhaps the best known example of this. This way you create something believable without needing to a slave to detail.
If you’re inventing a setting in this way it’s still important to understand how it fits into the real world. For Karl’s flat in London in my novel Fallen Star for example, I started with the view from the window and worked backwards to pinpoint where the building would be. The interior details were then based on details of properties for sale in that area. So although the flat is fictional it’s entirely believable.
Location is important to your story, it provides an anchor, gives atmosphere and may even help drive events. The key is that, whether it’s real or imaginary, your location must be believable, familiar enough to make the reader feel comfortable and sufficiently interesting to keep them engaged.
Ian Barker is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read his complete bio here.