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 🙂 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.
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.
Sorry for the short and basic article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂