Vision: A Resource for Writers

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A Modern City -- From the Real to the Unreal

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Having 'real' places where you can put your characters is one of the essential parts of writing, and something that new writers often over look. They think people know what a modern city looks like, and if they write a story based in Los Angelus or Hong Kong, they don't need to fill in the details of such well-known places.

And they're right.  And wrong.

First, remember one thing:  a story doesn't take place in a city -- it takes place in a part of the city.  The story may move to another area, but it is never going to be the city as a whole.  You need to know landmarks, streets, sometimes even things as simple as the name of a restaurant on a certain corner.  If you are writing about a real place in a real city, you need to know enough details to keep people who have seen the place believing your story is real.  And the larger the city where you place your story, the more potential readers from that city you will find.

How close to reality does your story need to be to produce the type of response in the reader that you would like?  The answer entails a number of factors that need to be taken into account. First is if what you are trying to create for your story has a real-world counterpart.  If you are writing about a real world city, for instance, then you need to have a good many touchstones so that the people who live in or know this particular place are not left feeling as though you have no idea what you're talking about.  If you make basic mistake that they can see, it will color their feelings toward the rest of the book.

So, does that mean you can only write about some place you know well?

No.  It means you just need to get a solid grounding in the city. 

This is the age of the Internet:  You can find information and pictures on just about any place on earth if you are willing to sit down for a couple hours with Google and sort through the material out there.  And if you are writing a story, then a couple hours to get it right shouldn't be that much of a hardship, now should it?

Mark the pages that have important information.  Make copies of pictures (for your own use only!) and study the shapes and colors.  Find out about the weather in the area.  Learn something about the culture(s), the food, the most famous restaurants and the location of the government offices. Study maps.  You might not use this information, but you never know when a little hint of information will come in handy.  (Mary stood on the corner and tried to decide which way to run -- to the right and the six blocks to the police station?  Or to the left and eight blocks to the hospital?)

This all seems pretty straightforward, and no doubt things many of you have thought about already.  Remember that if you are placing your story in a major city there will be a travel guidebook available.  These provide invaluable help to writers who are dealing with stories in the real world.

But a story, even one written about a real place, need not stay exactly true to the real world.  There are degrees by which the story might transcend from the real to the unreal.

One step away from real

Make certain you have all the basics of the city.  Layout all the 'real world' places that you think you can use.  However, there are several things that you will likely want to make up for yourself.  These can include workplaces, businesses that might have a major impact on the story (especially if presented in a negative way), and the house/apartment where the character lives. 

A second step away from real

This might include creating an entire neighborhood rather than just a home.  If you are writing a 'based on a true story' type of fiction, this isn't likely to work.  If you are writing historical fiction, you are going to have to be as close to nonfiction as you can get.  However, if you are writing a romance, mystery, thriller or anything of the like, you can get away with a little creative landscaping. 

Beyond real

There is one further step you can take:  Create your own city.  This may seem like a fantasy or science fiction answer, but it can also work in general fiction as well, and it can help in ways that open up possibilities that are limited in the real world.  Not only can you do a layout that suits your story, but you can fill it with history that plays to your needs.  If your story is about a powerful family that has had control of a city for years, then you can create a city to reflect that control.

Working with a modern city landscape is more than painting in a mall and putting a few cars on the streets. 

Workshop exercises:

Step 1:

Choose a city (100,000 people or more) that is at least five hundred miles from you and to which you have never been.  Go to the Internet and locate three things:

1.     The location of a major hospital
2.    The location of the city hall (or the equivalent in the city)
3.    The name of two major streets.
4.    The name and location of three restaurants that are not parts of chains.
5.    The name and location of at least one mall or shopping center of some sort.


Step 2:

This is where you build a neighborhood of your own.  Take what you learned above and locate a new neighborhood somewhere between the hospital and the city hall.  If possible, connect it to one of the major streets that you found.  Decide if it is upper class, lower class, or even slum.

There are no real guidelines here.  There are, for instance, a lot of inner city slums.  But there are also areas of inner cities that are filled with the huge old homes that are still owned by well-to-do families.  There are sometimes poor housing areas on 'the other side of the tracks' out along the edge of a city.  There might be new track housing out along the edges, too.  There is less likely to be track housing (middle class) toward a city center, only because it would require razing what is already there.

Step 3:

Using the model of the city you have already studied, create one of your own that has hospital, city hall, major streets, neighborhood housing, malls, etc.  Remember that such things like a city hall are often closer to the older, central areas of town, since it will have been built early.  Malls are generally on the outskirts, but with good access (like those major streets).


After studying the look and feel of a modern city, you will have a far easier time creating places that seem real even if they aren't.  There are many differences in regional cities -- towns in the American West and Southwest are far different than those on the East Coast.  European Cities, with their often centuries old town centers, are far different from the railroad towns that grew up in America in the last 150 years.  Study different cities and it can help make everything from a fantasy city to the street corner in an unnamed city feel real to the readers.

The few pieces I've presented here should only be a starting place. There is more to a town than the government, hospitals and shopping malls, after all.  Expand the list to suit the type of story you are writing. 

Like much else in worldbuilding, this need not be a major amount of work, as long as you get the basics down, you can build on them as you write.  Remember to keep notes of any additions, descriptions and directions you write during the course of the story, and it wills save you considerable work in trying to make places and times align properly later!