You might have set your story in a real live place. Maybe one you know well, which would make it easy, but suppose you chose one to which you’ve never been?
You would hardly be the first writer to do this. Bram Stoker famously did it in Dracula, putting his character Jonathan Harker in mortal peril in the craggy Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, a place he had never visited. And he did it pretty well for a Victorian writer with no access to internet.
If you do use a real place, you will need to either go there (prohibitive, I know) or study it extensively. Readers who live or have traveled to the location will know if you screw up and they will call you on it. Resources you may use include the following.
Oh, the places you’ll go. You’ve got Wikipedia, official websites, web atlases, travel sites, maps, and even databases. I googled London, England location and found all those and more.
Get thee to the library, little writer, and find not only an internet connection but loads of books. Yes, some of them may be outdated, but others will not be, and the reference librarian can be your new best friend.
Know anyone who’s lived or traveled to the place you’re writing about? Talk to them! If you’ve chosen an earlier decade in which to set your story, older folks who lived around there at the time can provide you with all sorts of details a Wikipedia article won’t mention. I’ve managed to glean quite a few for Secret Book by hanging out in a Facebook group dedicated to old London photos and chatting up fellow travelers at the B&B I stayed at in Cardiff.
You can also use real places but change or alter them in some way. Remember we talked about alternate history in another post? Same thing here.
In The Dark Tower, Stephen King uses New York City as a lynchpin to illustrate how his multiverses work.
Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean (formerly Odetta Holmes), and Jake Chambers all come from New York, but each one is from a different time–1987, 1964, and 1977 respectively. As we travel along the Path of the Beam with them, we realize their versions of New York are also different.
- The “real world” (Keystone Earth), where the reader is, contains the Rose, the physical manifestation of the Tower on Earth. It resides in Keystone New York.
- Eddie’s New York has Co-Op City, where he’s from, in Brooklyn; it’s really in the Bronx.
- Jake appears to have come from yet another version of New York, though it seems fluid; he not only can hear and see the Rose, he meets up with a child version of Eddie, who leads him to the place where he is finally drawn back to Mid-World.
- There are some weird temporal effects every time the ka-tet travels into these worlds. Sometimes time goes faster, sometimes slower, and they can go into both the past and the future. In Keystone Earth, they can only go forward, so whatever they do there has to be right, because they only get one shot.
How do they travel, sai? you may ask. Read the books and you’ll know. I say true.
(That set’s not arranged properly; the story of The Wind through the Keyhole takes place between Wizard and Glass and The Wolves of the Calla.)
Make sure if you mess around with a real place that your changes make sense within the confines of your story. You can’t put dinosaurs in New York without a good explanation about how they got there. And no, you can’t say they escaped from Jurassic Park, either.
To reference another trope writers often use regarding reality, does your setting actually exist in any universe, or does your story take place inside your character’s head (or a machine’s)? The Matrix used this to good effect. Neo discovers that the world he knew as reality isn’t really a thing; what we see every day is actually simulated, and humans are the energy source for the sentient machines that built it.
The worst example has to be the it was all a dream! trope. That one feels like a cheat–because it is. It’s a cheap way out, unless it leads to something else.
So here are three ways you can use real places as your settings. Try some of them. Let us know if you’ve already done this and how it turned out!