Tuesday, April 8, 2014

From the Magister's Note Book: Building the Real World, with a Twist

One of the most complicated problems of writing urban fantasy is that in most instances it takes place in real life locations, many of which may be familiar to the reader. Some writers work around this issue by creating their own locales. DC comics, for example, created places like Gotham, Metropolis, Central City, and others so they may design these areas as they wish. Kalayna Price also uses this convention in her Alex Craft series.

Other authors such as Laurell K Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and Anne Rice write in well-known locales.

The biggest problem is not only understanding the geography of your chosen location, but understanding the culture of the area, and its story.

All cities have a personality of their own, even where they're close by, Washington and Baltimore are a good example, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco all have very different personalities. Knowing these things is one of the great responsibilities of a writer, especially one who will be making creative additions to these locations.

One of the things I loved about Laurell K. Hamilton's work was that Saint Louis had that living feeling. The street names, the Fox Theater where Anita and Richard go to see Guys and Dolls. There is a wonderful sensation, in a way, that you could walk into Saint Louis, turn a corner and find the Vampire District (or Blood Square, but don't use that name in mixed company).

The point, of course, is the setting should be a living breathing entity, not just a collection of buildings located on a map.

Some of the things I've found helpful are going into the city itself. Many have architectural and historic tours. Of course reading is also key, but try and find books about the city's history, and not just travel guides. There tend to be books that are for tourists that'll take you off the beaten path.

Then there's dialect. If you're close to the city you're writing about, listen to how people talk.

Here's a good example:

And since this is a discussion of urban fantasy, know your area's urban myths and legends. There are numerous books out there that discuss the topic For myself, Ursula Bielski's Chicago Haunts has been a treasure trove of lore, written in the style of a folklorist rather than a ghost hunter.

It all comes down to research of course, but making your setting another character in your book, one that will help encourage the reader to believe the fantastic behind the curtain of the mundane makes it all worth it.

Copyright Penny Horwitz 2014