Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Imaginary Place



I've just posted a ramble on the Veggie Box blog about the assumed importance of real places in crime fiction, but does the same apply to other forms of fiction?

I'm assuming in terms of fantasy that a real location would be positively frowned upon. But how about science fiction?

It would be really interesting to write a historical novel in an imagined setting. Come to think of it, isn't that what Alis did? Did she start a whole new genre?

I've mixed the real and imagined in Light Reading, but my next book is keeping it all real. I think I prefer the freedom to make it up as I go along though (and I certainly prefer not having to do the research).

Someone set me straight - geographical or fantastical?

9 comments:

Matt Curran said...

Hi, Aliya

For me real place names - especially in fantastic fiction, i.e. sci-fi, horror, historical fantasy etc. - anchors the story in the reader's imagination. I guess it's like making a concession to say, "hey, this story isn't real, but imagine if it happened in a place you know about..."

Whenever I do make a place up, it's usually based on someplace real. I started writing a series of stories years ago based in a fictional town called Chapel Hulme, which is based on a rural town where I grew up in: Holmes Chapel. I guess not many people know where Holmes Chapel is, but by fictionalising it I can get away with more (as far as I'm aware the Devil never came to Holmes Chapel, but he did visit Chapel Hulme!)

Geographical or fantastical? Well, I think it depends on the place. If it's an intimate little town in the back of beyond, I'd say fantastical. If it's a sprawling adventure across continents and cities, then I would go for the geographical. You just can't dream up somewhere like London..!

Alis said...

I'm not sure I can claim to have invented a whole new genre ( I wish...) William Golding's The Spire is never actually located anywhere, real or imaginary, the Cathedral just IS. But in Ken Follett's twelfth century The Pillars of the EArth he has invented a city called Kingsbridge. I still like SAlster better though because I had to think not only about what it was like in the fourteenth century but how it looks now, for the contemporary strand of the story, so the city has long-standing traditions, architectural pedigree, tourist-attractions, etc. Making up somewhere is much more fun than setting your book somewhere real and, if the story doesn't need to be set somewhere which is actually on a map, why not let your imagination run riot?!

Eliza Graham said...

I speak as one who has spent most of Easter with a Baedeker map of Germany-as-it-was before 1945 double-checking names of towns and rivers, all of which have changed.

I know I'm going to get angry Germans of a certain age writing in to complain that there never was a house called Alexanderhof near the town of Treptow in Pomerania. Or,even worse, there WAS such a house and their aunt lived in it and they're suing me for implying she was addicted to sleeping tablets.

Len Tyler said...

I think this is a really interesting question, but it is very difficult to generalise. Agatha Christie's St Mary Mead is fictional, as is Colin Watson's Flaxborough. Ian Rankin's novels are set in a real Edinburgh and Colin Dexter's in a real Oxford. Malcolm Pryce sets his novels in Aberystwyth, but definitely not Aberystwyth as we know it. For what it's worth, most of the locations in the Herring Seller's Apprentice are real, but with one totally fake small town on the Essex coast.

I think I opt for the fictional for reasons of:

1 idleness - I couldn't be bothered to go an research a small town on the Essex coast
2 convenience - I'm not sure that a small Essex town of the sort I needed actually existed
3 litigation - I don't want to be sued by real people who live in a small Essex town I am being rude about.

Arguably all places that appear in fiction are fictional - Hardy's Wessex is England seen (and distorted) through one person's eyes, every bit as much as Tolkein's Shire is an idealised England (with added Hobbits) - a sweeping generalisation, I'd be happy to defend in the pub of your choice. I think the point is not that places must real but that that you have to make them believable. And I have a pretty clear picture of Allcombe: the decaying hotels and retirement homes, the steep walk up from the seafront, the dodgy drinking places ...

David Isaak said...

I mix and match freely. Some locales in Shock and Awe are real, others are based on real places, and some are entirely invented.

Being a good liar, I tend to mix dollops of truth into my prevarications.

Like Eliza, I spend a lot of time with maps and such and then squeeze in the fictitious material where I think I can get away with it.

In my work-in-progress, I slipped one of my characters into a list of names of experts on an obscure topic; if anyone bothers to check, the other folks exist.

Brian McGilloway said...

Hi Aliya
Like everyone else, I tend to use fictionalised versions of real places, adapted to suit the needs of plot or character. There was a real Borderlands nightclub on the Irsih border - it was just thirty miles away from where I've placed it in the first book. The next Devlin book concerns a goldmine opened in Donegal which is completely fictitious, though there are goldmines in Ireland. As Matt says, the real anchors the story while the fictional avoids all the problems Len mentions, I think.
Cheers
Brian

Tim Stretton said...

Fantasy need not take place in fictional locations--there is, for instance, a whole sub-genre of what might be described Regency fantasy (Susanna Clarke, Naomi Novik, Tim Powers and our own Matt Curran are exponents who spring to mind).

"The Dog of the North" takes place on an entirely fictional continent, but one of the two main locations is recognisably modelled on Venice as it would be if the canals froze in winter.

This choice was motivated partly by sheer fun (hey! a frozen Venice! way cool!), partly from laziness (a ready-made topography), partly love of sixteenth-century maps, and perhaps most importantly, the desire to draw on the reader's perceptions of mediaeval Venice (cultured, decadent, deadly) without needing to slow the story down with exposition of those things.

One of the ideas I'm working up at the moment has grown out of my interest in the medieval Republic of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik). How much of Ragusa survives when the story gets written remains to be seen--but at the very least the topography is likely to be similar.

Eliza Graham said...

I remember reading that Alan Furse uses expert help to research, say, mountain passes open in the winter of 1941 betweeen two central European countries, and feeling very envious.

Faye L. said...

From my perspective...

WHEN READING: don't care one way or the other.

WHEN WRITING: so far, all my books have been set in places that actually exist, but that's not to say that I wouldn't consider inventing somewhere, or basing a fictional place on somewhere I'm familiar with. (Might do that on a small scale with a future project I have in mind, actually.) It would certainly make things easier as far as checking the construction of buildings and other important landmarks goes ("It was built when I say it was built, alright!"), although I expect I would miss the warm fuzzies I get when passing places I now associate with my characters.