Where are we, anyway? #5 -Location, location, location!!

29 Apr

Location is the third of the three major ingredients when you’re writing a work of fiction. Usually, it isn’t quite as important as plot and characters, but there are times when it is the most important. Think “Life of Pi” or “The Old Man and the Sea”. Or “Grapes of Wrath” for that matter. And what about “The High and the Mighty”? Any of those stories would lose their oomph if located somewhere other than the location depicted by the author.

Many stories are so universal in nature that they could take place almost anywhere or in any time frame, without raising any eyebrows. Others are so specific, they cannot be set other than where the characters and the plot demand. A few sentences of descriptive narrative here and there, using local buildings or street names or events, will go a long way to establish your credibility.

So, how does the author contrive a realistic setting in another century or location that may be too far in the past – or the future – to be visited. Of course – the web! Where else? One can find almost anything one needs or wants to know (along with a lot you might have happily lived forever without having it thrust in front of your face) so it’s essential to be able to discern the wheat from the chaff.

My personal preference for really in-detail knowledge is my local library. Geography books are invaluable for finding a good locale for your story, as are the larger, photo-laden coffee-table sized books of photos. What wonders you can find in these books! Or you could look for a biography of someone who lived in that area, which should bring some fine-tuning to your search.

Illustrated guide-books are another great source of information. Most of them include lots of glossy photos (the better to lure you in, my dears) and other dandy little snippets of information, mixed in with the historical bits. With a little bit of digging at the library you might also find journals or diaries written by people who actually lived in the years or places of most interest to you. It can also be enlightening to discover just how very mobile some of those people were before the days of mass transportation.

It’s really important to know the location during the era in which your book is set. For instance, my very favorite anachronism is Mackinac Island, Michigan. It’s a small island – only 8 miles around the perimeter – but there are NO cars allowed. (There are emergency services available which use engine-driven vehicles – it seems to me there were three of them the last time I investigated: EMT, an  ambulance and a firetruck. There are also earth-movers at the landfill, but that’s off-limits to civilians.) Otherwise, everything (people as well as freight) moves by foot, horse, or bicycle, although I do think perhaps golf carts are allowed on the two golf courses.) The local bank sports the only horse-driven access ATM in the world! I’m not making this up, either.

Suppose you wanted to set your book in the Antarctic. (Frankly, I can’t imagine why, but you know best.) I suspect it would be difficult to visit there, but it’s frequently in the news, so there are probably multiple sources you could use for search and discovery.

Of course, if you’re creating your very own ‘alternate universe’ maybe you don’t really need to know about such things. However, if you make it all up to begin with, just please be sure you don’t constantly change the important factors such as magnetic pull or weather to suit your story, without having already established such changeability as normal.

In addition to being accurate about the details of your location, you must also be accurate as to the social morés of the era you are depicting. There are lots of ways an unsuspecting author can insert foot into mouth. Try not to let it be you!

Questions?  Comments?  Write to me – bookmechanicATgmail.com

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