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 🙂

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Three Thoughts About Telling Stories in Genres You Don’t Know

2015 Artwork In A Genre You Don't Know sketch (version two)

A while before I wrote this article, I started playing a wild west-themed computer game from the 1990s called “Outlaws” (I’m not sure if I’ll review this game – although I probably won’t). Anyway, after playing it for about half an hour, I briefly thought “Hmmm… I want to write a western story or comic“.

Of course, the idea passed fairly quickly, but I suddenly realised how little I know about the western genre. Apart from playing this computer game and watching a couple of famous western movies (and “Firefly“, of course), I know relatively little about the western genre.

Still, this made me think about whether it’s possible to tell stories in genres that you don’t have a hugely detailed knowledge of. I’d argue that it might be possible and here are a few thoughts on how you might do it:

1) Use the surface only: One of the easiest possible ways to tell a story in a genre that you don’t know is to just tell a story in a genre that you do know, and just make it look vaguely like something from the genre that you don’t know.

For example, if you wanted to write a western, but you know a lot more about the horror genre than the western genre – then just write a horror story which has a vaguely wild west-style setting. Tell a story about a ghost town in the wild west, with much more emphasis on the ghosts than on the wild west itself.

One of the advantages of using this approach is that, since you’re blending two genres together, your story will probably be a lot more original than you might expect. Yes, it might annoy purists, but for “regular” fans of the genre that you’re trying to write in – it’ll be something interesting and different.

2) Use the underlying qualities: Think about what exactly interests you about a particular genre that you don’t really know or understand that well. Write up a list of qualities that make this unknown genre stand out to you. Then see if you can find a way to fit these qualities into a story or comic in a genre you do know and understand.

For example, the things that interest me about the western genre are the desolate settings, the individualistic characters, the dramatic gunfights, some of the music that’s associated with films and games in the genre, some of the fashions, the wandering “outlaw” characters etc..

Now, of course, if I wanted to, I could make a cyberpunk comic that included all of these qualities. I could come up with an idea for a fantasy story that included most of these elements. Neither of these things would actually be a western, but they’d have a very similar “feel” to a western.

3) Make it up: You have an imagination, so why not use it? As long as you add something to your story that makes it clear that it isn’t a “typical” example of a story in the genre you want to write in, then just use your imagination to work out what a story in this genre would look like.

For example, I’m not an expert on 19th century American history. So, if I tried to write a “proper” western, then I’d fail miserably. However, if I was to set the story in a parallel universe, or in a virtual reality program, or in a dream or even on another planet – then I’d have the freedom to create whatever I imagine a western to be like because none of my readers would expect it to be a “realistic” western.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂