Whether you're looking to add extra immersion and energy to your writing, or find it tough to get settings right, these thoughts on writing places are likely to be useful. Two of our resident writers talk about their experiences in writing places, and challenges and successes they've found along the way.
I’ve been struggling to write a story this month. There was a call for submissions that I really wanted to answer. I had a couple of ideas for stories, but I just couldn’t get going on them. In the end, I had to sit down and really think about what was stopping me.
It was the fact it had to be set in York.
I wasn’t sure why that was such a block for me. Then I had a think about my writing. Every story I could call to mind had taken place in an unnamed, neutral location.
My poetry has a strong sense of place – in fact, ‘place’ is a recurring theme in my poems – but not my stories.
This struck me as odd. Not one of them could be pinned down as happening in a specific place? That had to be a choice, albeit a subconscious one, and it led me to a question: What’s been stopping me from allowing real locations to enter my fiction?
I started to think about the importance of place in the books that I love, and it began to dawn on me that my writing has been missing something very important. What would Wuthering Heights be without the Yorkshire Moors brooding in the background? James Herriot’s vet series, come to that? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah evokes city life in Nigeria, the US and England in such a way that I felt as if I’d lived in all of those places, to the point that I loved Lagos and was sick of London by the time I’d finished it. Alexander McCall’s 44 Scotland Street series is an extended love letter to Edinburgh, full of in-jokes and knowing smiles. And what would Sherlock Holmes be without London?
It began to dawn on me that in the best fiction, place isn’t just a setting – it’s a character. So why was I so wary of including it?
If I’m being completely honest, I think what has been holding me back is fear. Setting a story in a particular place runs the risk of cliché – when you live in York, the temptation to set your story in Shambles, or mention the Minster every other paragraph, is pretty strong. So, I’ve been sidestepping it altogether, which I now realise has made my work pretty bland at times.
A strong sense of place adds flavour, identity and colour to stories – and so now, instead of being wary of including specific locations, I’m pretty excited about seeing how my writing improves once it’s pinned down, instead of floating in the ether.
I tend to write stories of two kinds: stories set in entirely imaginary places, and stories set in places I know very well. Sounds obvious, really, doesn't it?
For most of my life, I believed I was at a disadvantage, because who really wanted to read stories set in the places I knew? I was convinced that a good thriller had to be set somewhere like New York or Chicago. I'd get started and it would go nowhere; my work felt flat because I just didn't know enough about those places to make my settings feel really immersive, or to give those places life and character of their own. And it wasn't enjoyable. There was no energy.
There were three things that made me see the light, the first being that I moved to beautiful Yorkshire; which I developed an instant and abiding love for. The second was that I started reading more books set in the UK, and discovered that you absolutely can write a best-selling novel set in a small British town; and what's more, the passion and love for those places that bled through the page added a dimension to those novels that gave them an x-factor. Finally, a friend of mine asked in a writing group for advice on how to convincingly set a book in a real place that you've never been to, and while we came up with lots of ideas, the best one we came up with was, simply: go there.
I started putting my characters in Leeds and York and Wakefield. I realised that the people who live in those places will love reading a story set somewhere they know (because I did) and that the billions of people who don't live in Yorkshire will find it new and intriguing. I learned that I could pick up the local town hall from my childhood and transplant it into an otherwise imaginary world.
What's more, it's easier to learn how to write places well if you can remove the element of creation and focus on crafting. Since I started experimenting with writing the places I know, my writing which focuses on imaginary places, for example, a colony on Mars, has become leaps and bounds better.
As I go along, I meet more and more writers on one side of this barrier or the other. When I think about my favourite books, they all tend to have one thing in common - I feel like I'm inside the world. In my mind's eye, I can see it. Yes, writing places was a turning point for me. It was revelatory.
Write some short stories set in real places that you know, or even better, that you have strong feelings about. See if it inspires you!
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Cover image by Philippe D. via Unsplash