I recently ghost wrote a fantasy story set in a real British city. As I sat googling buildings and street maps instead of making them up – my usual approach to fantasy – it got me thinking about why using real places can be useful in otherwise unreal genres.
Like reading about history, society or science, spending time learning about a place can inspire interesting things to put into your story. My story ‘Cousin Isaac is Missing‘ gained its geographical details from my own knowledge of Norwich, and while that might seem a small thing in a flash story, I wouldn’t even have thought to write that story if I hadn’t grown up there.
Those details that provide inspiration can also add to the sense of reality and authenticity in a story. Even in fantasy, we want the places we write about to feel real to the readers, and that’s easier to do if they’re actually real.
If you aren’t consistent then readers will notice. In an invented world you’re likely to remember or make a note of the important details. But will you remember the colour of the gates to the castle? Because if you get that mixed up, a reader will notice. Whereas if you’re looking at a photo of a real place, you won’t make that mistake.
4. People Like to Read About Familiar Places
What’s that you say, that’s a stupid reason? Science fiction and fantasy readers want to read about imaginary worlds?
Well, yes, they do. But they also pay attention to their own surroundings. If a story in the news is about your home town you’re more likely to read it. If a novel features the obscure village where you spent your gap year herding wildebeests, you’re going to be curious about the way it’s portrayed.
We like familiar things, and we like to see them transformed. Make somebody’s home town magical, and that could turn them into one of your readers.
5. Rounding Out the Setting
When writing a fictional setting, the only details that exist for readers are the ones you put on the page. If the place is real, then readers who’ve heard of it, or better still been there, will fill in blanks from their own knowledge. Like authenticity and consistency, this makes the place seem more real, and can absorb the reader more thoroughly in your world.
What Are the Drawbacks?
I’ve talked about the advantages, but what are the drawbacks of using a real place? Let me know in the comments.
And if you’d like to read some work where the real and the unreal cross over, my short collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is free as a Kindle ebook all this week.