Why Writers Use Fictional Locations – A Ramble

Whilst reading the historical detective novel I plan to review tomorrow (“Heartstone” by C. J. Sansom), I noticed something really cool – it was perhaps the first novel that I’d read where I actually recognised quite a few of the real place names mentioned in it.

They were everyday local place names that I’ve grown up around. And, given that many of the novels I read tend to be set in America, London or clearly fictional places, this was the first time that I’d seen places I actually know mentioned in a novel.

It was a really cool experience πŸ™‚ But, then the novel mentioned a village called “Hoyland” and my first thought was “I haven’t heard of that place before“. The only description in the novel was that it was about 7-8 miles north of Portsdown Hill.

In other words, somewhere in the distance here… possibly.

Using Google Maps, I deduced that it could possibly be a historical name for Clanfield or Denmead. But, a search for the village name didn’t turn up anything. Then I realised that it was probably just a fictional location, mixed in with several real locations to give it an air of authenticity.

This, of course, made me think about the subject of fictional locations and why writers use them. The most simple reason is, as I’ve hinted at earlier, to stop people picking up every tiny inaccuracy and fault. If a location is fictional, then there’s no way that someone can accuse the writer of getting something wrong.

So, using a fictional town in an otherwise realistic setting can be a way to make sure that your readers’ reaction of “Oh cool, I know that place!” doesn’t turn into “Here’s a list of what you’ve got wrong…

But, more that that, using fictional locations (in real world settings) gives the writer a much greater degree of creative control too. After all, the locations in a story are usually chosen or designed for a very specific reason, usually to make the story more interesting or dramatic.

For example, one of the fictional locations in C.J.Sansom’s “Heartstone” is a stately home called Hoyland Priory. This is a former priory which has been turned into a large house. It is a house that has an abandoned graveyard in the grounds and is near both a forest and a village. And, without spoiling anything, these details are all relevant to the plot of the story in different ways. Without them, the story wouldn’t be as good.

However, whilst there are probably real Tudor-era houses in southern England that include these features, the chances of one being near Portsmouth (which is also a setting in the novel for plot-relevant reasons) are probably fairly slim. So, it’s both better and easier for the writer to come up with a fictional location instead.

So, yes, the other major reason why writers use fictional locations is that it gives them a much greater degree of creative control. It allows them to create locations that will enhance the story, rather than having to find a way to shoehorn the story into the limitations of a pre-existing place.

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Sorry for the short and basic article, but I hope that it was useful πŸ™‚

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Some Thoughts About Familiar And Unfamiliar Locations In Fiction – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d ramble about the subject of familiar and unfamiliar locations in fiction. But, I’m going to have to start by talking about art and television for a little while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious soon.

Anyway, I ended up thinking about this topic because (although I haven’t watched it at the time of writing), I happened to read about a TV series that is set in an amazing town called Aberystwyth, where I lived for about four years.

This is a town that I have a lot of good memories of, and it turns up in my creative works quite a lot. For example the setting of my occasional webcomic is loosely-based on it and I also still make nostalgic paintings about it every now and then, like this upcoming painting:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 1st December.

Yet, when I read about the fact that there was an actual TV series set there, I suddenly realised that I’d never seen a scripted TV series or a feature film that was set anywhere that I’d lived for any length of time. Even the few full-length novels that are set in really familiar places (eg: for Aberystwyth, this would be Niall Griffith’s “Grits” and Louie Knight’s novels) have been languishing on my gigantic “to read” pile for literally years.

It’s this last point that really made me think about familiar places and fiction. Because, logically speaking, I should have read these books at least once by now. I should have already watched that TV series I mentioned earlier several years ago (either when it was broadcast on BBC Four, or on DVD). Yet, at the time of writing, I’ve still got to get round to looking at these things.

In part, I guess that it’s because I’m worried that they might not live up to my memories of these places. But, in a lot of ways, it’s because the idea of reading or watching a fictional story (by someone else) set somewhere really familiar seems deeply alien to me. After all, throughout most of my life, stories are things that happen in other places. They’re a way to see other places, to daydream about other places, to escape the boringly familiar… or to transform it into something more interesting.

I mean, when I actually lived in Aberystwyth, I happened to read a novel that was set in New Orleans and North Carolina (and, no, I’ve never been to America). After I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of an awesome pub/nightclub in Aberystwyth called “The Angel Inn” as being similar to a (fictional) bar from the novel called “The Sacred Yew”.

Likewise, after reading/watching a couple of other things set in New Orleans, a balcony on an old house I saw near the coast in Aberystwyth suddenly made me think of a gothic version of New Orleans:

This is a photo, that I took in 2009, of a street in Aberystwyth (with number plates redacted). The balcony on the house on the right-hand side of the photo reminded me of an imagined gothic version of New Orleans.

Plus, after I read several novels about New Orleans restaurants by the same author and happened to see a few pictures of that city, a green building on Aberystwyth high street suddenly made me think of New Orleans (even though I’ve never been there):

This is another photo of Aberystwyth that I took in 2009. The building that reminded me of New Orleans is the green one with the turret in the middle of the photo.

Rather than being unsettlingly bizarre, these daydreams about an unfamiliar place (New Orleans) made a familiar place (Aberystwyth) seem ten times cooler than it already was. They added a bit of additional depth and interest to somewhere that I thought of as “ordinary” at the time. And, maybe this is one reason why fiction set in unfamiliar places is so interesting – because it makes you think about familiar places in new ways.

But, more than all of this, another cool side-effect of not seeing/reading many stories set in familiar places is that it makes you want to create your own.

I mean, although I occasionally wrote (unpublished) stories set in Aberystwyth when I was actually living there, the reason why it’s a recurring location in my art and comics these days is because I’m really nostalgic about it. If there were hundreds of films, novels etc… set there, then I’d probably get my nostalgia fix from these things instead of creating stuff. Likewise, if I still lived there, it would still just be “ordinary” and I’d probably want to make stuff about other places.

So, yes, not seeing really familiar locations in films, books, games etc… isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It widens your imagination and it also prompts you to be more creative too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Single-Location Comedy – A Ramble

Well, since I was also busy preparing last year’s Christmas short stories at the time I was preparing this article, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about single-location comedy.

This is mostly because the events of the previous two stories I’d written (this one and this one) before writing this article both entirely took place within a single office.

This type of single-location comedy tends to turn up more often in film and television than in other mediums, for the simple reason that it is cheaper to produce. After all, if you only have to build one set (or a small number of sets), then it’s going to cost less. But, of course, it can also work in other mediums too.

The main advantages of setting your comedy story and/or comic within a single location is that it places more emphasis on the dialogue and the characters. More crucially, it is also perfect for shorter things (eg: flash fiction stories, three-panel comics etc..) for the simple reason that you don’t have to spend too much time setting the scene.

In addition to this, the limitation of setting an entire story or comic within a single location also forces you to be more creative too. After all, if you have to make something interesting, funny or dramatic without being able to change the location, then this pushes you to be more inventive.

Likewise, if your single location is distinctive or interesting in any way, then it can also almost become a character in it’s own right. This helps to increase audience immersion in the story, in addition to giving your fans something to focus on too.

However, the main disadvantage of only using one location is that – if the writing isn’t good enough – then it can get very boring, very quickly. This is not just true for your audience, but for you too.

Whilst this isn’t as much of an issue in prose fiction, having to draw the same background over and over again in a comic or webcomic can become tiring or monotonous very quickly (and is one reason why many single-location comics tend to have more minimalist backgrounds).

So, with prose fiction and comics, it’s often better to go for a happy medium. In other words, set most of your story or comic in one location (in order to gain the advantages of using just one location) but don’t be afraid to include the occasional scene set in other locations – when justified by context. Not only will this make these scenes stand out more by comparison but, since you’re writing or drawing rather than making a film, it isn’t like it costs anything extra to include other locations.

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Sorry for such a short, basic and rambling article, but I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Good Settings In The Horror Genre

Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.

So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….

1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.

When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).

By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.

And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.

2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.

For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.

In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.

All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…

But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.

So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).

The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.

3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.

The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….

Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice).

Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.

So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

One Thing That The Romance Genre Does Differently To Most Other Genres

Although I haven’t really read or watched that many things (relatively speaking) in the romance genre, I was reminded of one of the really interesting features of the genre whilst writing a film review recently. So, I thought that I’d take a slightly deeper look at settings in the romance genre today.

One of the really interesting things about romance fiction and romantic films is that they seem to have much more emphasis on place than stories in other genres usually do. Although science fiction and fantasy often pride themselves on creating interesting fictional “worlds”, the sense of place in the romance genre is often a lot more solid and emphatic.

Whether it’s Rickey & G-Man’s restaurant in Poppy Z. Brite’s excellent “Liquor” series, the two houses (and the space between them) in BrontΓ«’s “Wuthering Heights“, the frequently-shown locations in “Lois & Clark“, or the old house in “Practical Magic” – things in the romance genre often tend to have a surprisingly strong sense of place when compared to other genres.

This is mostly achieved by focusing more heavily on one location (or a smaller number of locations), rather than the wider range of locations found in many other genres. There are quite a few reasons why this tends to happen a lot in the romance genre.

The most obvious reason is that, because the emphasis in the romance genre is on the relationship between two characters, this usually means that these characters have to be in close proximity to each other for a fair amount of the story. As such, both of them will usually spend most of their time in a single town, village, city, house etc…

Since the romance genre focuses on the relationship between two characters, the narrative pacing is also often slightly slower too. Whilst many other genres (such as the thriller and detective genres) rely on more frequent and varied location changes in order to tell a more dynamic and fast-paced story, the romance genre doesn’t really need to do this as much.

In addition to this, the focus on a single location also helps with audience immersion too. Since the emotional components of the romance genre rely heavily on the reader or viewer living vicariously through one of the main characters, the smaller number of locations helps to immerse the audience a lot more firmly.

By focusing most of the descriptions, set design etc.. on a smaller number of more distinctive locations, romantic stories help the audience to imagine that they could actually be living there. The additional descriptions, screen time etc.. devoted to a small number of locations also helps the audience to create a much stronger mental image of these places, which helps them to feel that they could actually live there.

Likewise, since one element of the romance genre is wish fulfilment, escapism and fantasy, there’s also often a need for more interesting settings. The romance genre is a feel-good genre that allows the audience to take a brief “holiday”.

So, even if the settings are still relatively “ordinary”, they will often be interesting or distinctive in some way or another. Whether it’s a distinctive old house, an old castle, a charming rural town, a city in another country or even a tropical paradise of some kind, locations in the romance genre are often the kind of interesting places that readers would want to visit.

Finally, the emphasis on one location also helps with the atmosphere and emotional tone of romance stories too. By placing the events of the story in just one place, the romance genre is able to create a sense of intimacy and cosiness that complements the relationship between the main character really well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Are Futuristic Settings An Essential Part Of The Cyberpunk Genre?

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote about the cyberpunk genre. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at whether “futuristic” settings (eg: neon-lit mega cities etc..) are an essential part of the genre. If you’ve never seen anything in the cyberpunk genre, here’s a painting of mine that includes a typical cyberpunk-style location:

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

This type of location was first popularised by either Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” or William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and it was expanded upon in many subsequent cyberpunk works over the years ( such as “Akira“, Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” and/or the original “Ghost In The Shell” anime films/TV shows ).

This type of setting has been a popular part of the genre for a lot of reasons but, most of all, because it looks cool. Not to mention that the ‘information overload‘ from all of the many artificial light sources, billboards, crowds, rapid-fire narration etc.. is a very good way of quickly showing the audience that the story/film/comic is set in a complex, futuristic world where technology is king.

Yet, I happened to see a few episodes of a TV series from 2015 called “Humans” the day before I wrote this article. In many ways, this is a modern cyberpunk TV series. It revolves around cyberpunk subjects like robots, computer hacking and artificial intelligence. It even includes a “Blade Runner”-style group of sentient robots on the run from the authorities and lots of unsettling “Ghost In The Shell”-style uncanny valley scenes where the hyper-realistic robots don’t act in quite the right way.

But, even with all of this cyberpunk-style stuff, the series doesn’t really look that cyberpunk. Instead of being set in a futuristic mega-city, it is mostly set in a fairly “realistic” version of present-day London, albeit with the occasional futuristic advertisement or robot charging station. The settings in this TV series are about a million miles away from a typical “cyberpunk” setting.

A good example of this is the sheer visual difference between the first time we see the escaped robots (or “synths”) in “Humans” compared to when we see the escaped replicants in “Blade Runner”.

This is a screenshot from “Blade Runner” [1982], showing two of the escaped Replicants hiding in a futuristic film noir cyberpunk version of Los Angeles.

And here are the escaped synths in “Humans” [2015]. Although this is a similar concept to “Blade Runner”, the setting couldn’t be more different if it tried…

Thematically, both “Blade Runner” and what I’ve seen of “Humans” have a lot of similarities. In fact, I’d argue that “Humans” actually goes a lot further when it comes to examining the impact that the existence of humanoid robots would have on society. Possibly even more so than the various “Ghost In The Shell” anime TV shows/films do.

In terms of pure story, “Humans” is proper old-school cyberpunk with a little bit of classic 50s/60s-style “serious” science fiction thrown in for good measure. Yet, even after watching several episodes, I still found myself oddly reluctant to consider “Humans” to be a cyberpunk TV show because of the setting. Even so, there is a precedent when it comes to non-cyberpunk settings in the cyberpunk genre.

David Cronenburg’s “eXistenZ” is a film about virtual reality from the late 1990s and it’s about as cyberpunk as you can get. Yet, most of the futuristic technology in the film is based on organic matter and genetic engineering. Likewise, the locations in the film tend to look a lot more like this:

A screenshot from “eXistenZ” [1999], showing an old rural church hall. Most of the film actually takes place in the countryside, despite the fact that it’s a cyberpunk movie.

So, what’s so different about these two things? Not that much. But, “eXistenZ” seems more cyberpunk for the simple reason that it’s settings are a lot more mysterious and undetailed than the London-based settings in “Humans” are. Although “eXistenZ” doesn’t feature any futuristic mega-cities, it still captures that overwhelming sense of “being lost in the future” by using mysteriously generic rural locations and lots of surreal virtual worlds.

“Humans”, on the other hand, is clearly set in a real place. The scenes set in London are filmed in London and the main setting for quite a few scenes is an upper-middle class house in the suburbs. There isn’t really any mystery at all. Yet, everything else about the story is cyberpunk enough for it to fit into the cyberpunk genre.

In a way, I guess that this is all part of the natural evolution of the genre. It’s also a sign that stuff from the cyberpunk genre is becoming more integrated into “mainstream” science fiction too. Even so, I’d argue that the cyberpunk genre loses something when it moves away from the awe-inspiringly beautiful neon-lit mega-cities of it’s past. It loses a sense of mystery that can spark the audience’s imagination. It also loses the idea of an “artificial world” that consists entirely of man-made buildings, artificial lighting and technology.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Location Choices In Short Stories And Webcomic Updates – A Ramble

2017-artwork-location-choices-article-sketch

Well, since I’m busy making a webcomic mini series for next month and also seem to be spending quite a bit of time playing a computer game (called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines”) at the time of writing, I thought that I’d take a look at another interesting thing that playing games can teach you about making webcomics, writing short fiction etc…

One of the interesting things about many computer games is that, although they might contain quite a few levels or even a large “open world”, there are always limits on where the player can explore. Most of the time, this is done for purely practical reasons (eg: a game company might have the time and/or budget to build a large city for the player to explore, but it might only contain 20-100 buildings that the player can actually enter.)

Whilst some games take the “open world” approach, many other games limit the player to exploring smaller areas in order to provide a much more focused and “deep” experience. For example, although “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” contains quite a few complex buildings that the player can explore, it only contains about four “open” areas, each of which only consists of a few streets. This allows the game designers to focus more on making these smaller outdoor areas interesting, whilst helping to ensure that the player doesn’t get too lost whilst exploring.

This focus on a limited number of locations is something that is worth bearing in mind if you’re making webcomics or writing short fiction.

If you’re writing short fiction or making a 3-8 panel webcomic update, then the main focus needs to be on things like humour, storytelling and characterisation. What this means is that you should probably only include 1-3 different locations in each comic update or short story. Because you don’t have too much room, you need to focus on locations that are actually relevant to the story.

So, with short fiction especially, choosing a location can often be a surprisingly important thing. For example, this short story of mine is about a futuristic city that has experienced a power cut. Although other locations are mentioned in the story, the events of the story take place within a single room. This allows me to focus more on both the characters and the story than if I’d tried to write about lots of different things happening in different places.

Plus, by focusing on a very limited number of locations, you can also spend more time describing those locations in detail. Detailed descriptions of one or two locations will make your story more dramatic and atmospheric than if you try to describe a larger number of locations in much less detail.

Likewise, if you’re making webcomics, then using a more limited number of locations can be a good way to save time (eg: drawing the same simple background multiple times is quicker than having to plan and draw lots of different backgrounds) and also to give your webcomic a lot more “personality” too. After all, familiar recurring locations can often become part of what a webcomic is about.

Of course, the problem with doing this in a webcomic is that using the same backgrounds repeatedly can be visually monotonous. But, there are lots of sneaky ways to get around this.

For example, in dramatic panels, you can use a solid black background – this places emphasis on the character who is talking, it’s quick to draw and it adds some visual variety to the comic update too.

Likewise, if a character is talking at length about something, then you can use a “cutaway” panel – just add the narration to a box at the top of the panel and then add a small illustration of whatever it is that the character is talking about. Here’s an example from the upcoming webcomic mini series that I’m preparing at the time of writing:

 The full comic update will be posted here on the 28th November.

The full comic update will be posted here on the 28th November.

So, yes, looking at explorable areas in computer and video games can teach you the value of only including a small number of relevant locations in your short stories and/or comic updates.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚