5 Reasons to Use Real Places in Fantasy

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.

1. Inspiration

Welcome to Nrwich, A Fine City, as the sign says. Photo by fernando butcher via Flickr creative commons
Welcome to Norwich, A Fine City, as the sign says.
Photo by fernando butcher via Flickr creative commons

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.

2. Authenticity

Something doesn't look quite real. Photo by normanack via Flickr creative commons
Something doesn’t look quite real.
Photo by normanack via Flickr creative commons

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.

3. Consistency

Wait, this wall was made of bricks two chapters ago.
Wait, this wall was made of bricks two chapters ago.

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

Look, I can see my house from here!
Look, I can see my house from here!

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

Boss, why do we have to keep imagining that wall?
Boss, why do we have to keep imagining that wall?

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.

Cousin Isaac is Missing – a #flashFriday story

Picture by Stephen Bowler via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Stephen Bowler via Flickr Creative Commons

I open the door and step out into a cold spring day, my cloak wrapped tight around me, flattening my woollen dress. Pulling up the hood, I cover my hair and cast my face into shadow, hoping that I will blend into the crowd. It is safer that way.

This close to the castle our streets are cobbled. Perhaps that is one of the things that people resent about us. Perhaps not. I am not sure I will ever understand the why of it, though I will always know that the resentment is there. Fear and suspicion are my constant companions, hanging at my shoulders day and night. More so now, since cousin Isaac is missing.

I have to go to the market. Not far, but far enough. Past the corner where they beat my father two summers back. Beneath the shadow of St Peter’s. I will be quick, buy the things I need and hurry back home. Tensions have been high. None of us linger in the streets.

My footsteps echo along Weavers Lane. As I emerge into the marketplace a gust of wind snatches back my hood, exposing me to the eyes of dozens of traders and shoppers, even a guard down from the castle in his chainmail and tabard. I feel like they are all staring, even after I pull the hood back up and lose myself among the stalls.

No-one has seen Isaac or his family in days. His house is two streets from mine, on the edge of the Jewish quarter.

“They say that a gentile has occupied the house already,” mother told me last night. She does not say who “they” are, but it sends a shiver down my spine. Was Isaac chased away, like when Sarah fled to Yarmouth and from there across the sea? Or are they dead, their bodies flung in a ditch or onto a fire, like those we lost in the riots?

I do not think we will ever know.

The fishmonger has always been good to me. He does not try to raise his prices, and he gives me my change. But he is fast about it today, and does not look me in the eye. I’m sad, but relieved. The sooner I am out of sight the better.

Except that this is my city too. My family have lived here for generations. A stubborn anger grabs hold of me. Why should I skulk in shadows or hide in my home on a clear, bright day like this? I fling back my hood and, instead of walking home, head toward the hill on which the castle stands. I love the view from up there. It makes me proud to live in Norwich.

My city.

Almost immediately I feel eyes on me again and I regret revealing myself. But I have started walking up the hill now, and will not give up.

Glancing around, I see a young man following me. There is an intensity to his face that makes me walk faster, past the staring eyes and whispering voices.

Heart racing, I turn down a narrow, deserted street. The view can wait. I want to be home. But a waggon is blocking the far end of the road, and as I turn around to face the men following me – there are two of them now – a single thought fills my mind.

Cousin Isaac is missing.

I back away, find myself pressed against the waggon. Timber walls loom over me to left and right, and the men are nearly upon me. I close my eyes, fighting back tears.

“You’re Isaac the Jew’s cousin, aren’t you?” His voice is gruff.

I nod. There is no point denying it.

“We…” The man hesitates. “We were sorry to hear about Isaac. He was a good man. His wife and Tom here’s were friends. It’s a shame what happened, but…”

I open my eyes to see that he is shrugging. He looks away embarrassed.

“Good man,” his friend agrees.

They both turn and walk away.

The waggon at my back shifts. The driver is moving on, and I can leave this way. I take a deep breath and pull my hood forward, hiding my tears as well as my hair.

Cousin Isaac is dead. I, by God’s will, am still alive. And in some small way, this is still our city.


* * *

This story was inspired by a post on Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. The Middle Ages was a pretty awful time for everyone by modern standards, but particularly so for Europe’s Jewish population. I haven’t singled out Norwich because it was any worse or better than anywhere else, but because I grew up there, I know the city, and Beachcombing’s post made it a natural setting.

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