A Modern City -- From the Real to
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:
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
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.
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
Working with a modern city landscape is more than painting in a mall and
putting a few cars on the streets.
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
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
5. The name and location of at least one mall or shopping center
of some sort.
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
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.
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