Writing Life: Incorporating Real-World Locations into your Story

In early December, I finished writing Shades of Memory. It’s an urban fantasy meets conspiracy theory meets thriller kind of story, set in Canberra, and the first story I’ve written using the real world to contribute to the story as well as the backdrop for the story. To do this, I had to become familiar enough with the locations I wanted to incorporate that they were real to people who knew them, as well as to people who’d never come to visit—and that’s not as easy as it seems.

Needless to say, I learned a few things along the way.

Describing the Location: This is both as easy it sounds, and much harder. There is more to a location than ‘a statue of a horse surrounded by trees’. I mean, that’s a good start, but what kind of horse? What kind of statue? What kind of trees? And then there elements like how the sun affects the appearance of the statue, and the sorts sounds heard by the characters, the smells, and the environment itself.

When describing a location, you have to remember to keep the story at the centre of the description. Each part of the location you bring to your reader has to count. A description that briefly describes the statue and the trees as the characters pass, indicates that the location might be important later. Why? If the main character catches a glimpse of a stranger standing beside the statue, and then later encounters ‘the man from the statue’, and the ‘man from the statue is important to the story, but the statue is not, then an accurate, but brief, description is all that is needed.

If, however, the statues are located in a search area, or contain clues, then you may need to spend more time on them, and make sure your description is accurate enough that those familiar with the statue and location aren’t pulled out of the story by blatant inaccuracies. In other words, if you’re not sure the statue has a feature you wish to highlight, either check the location, or photographs of the location, and make sure that the feature exists. If it doesn’t, and you really want it to be there, make up a plausible reason why it is there and acknowledge its addition. Readers will be tolerant of changes made in the story world, as long as they know they are deliberate changes and not a lack of authorial care.

Locations are also important for adding atmosphere to the story. Don’t just give a bland description of a ‘bronze statue of two infantrymen on patrol’. Use the description to add something to your story. Is there a reason the character should be feeling uneasy? Breathe some uneasiness into the picture while giving your description.

In the example below, I describe the character in Shades of Memory visiting the Australian Army National Memorial. First is a brief description of what she is seeing, followed by a slow introduction of unease.

Walking along the footpath, Agatha came to the next memorial. Seven pillars of white brick, curved behind a raised cement dais paved in grey and red. In the centre of the pillars, looking as though they had just emerged from between them, stood two Australian soldiers. At around three metres tall, and made of dulled out bronze, the pair looked like they were still on patrol.

The wary expressions etched on their faces, and the careful way in which they carried their rifles made it seem as though they were expecting trouble. Agatha wondered what it would be like to come across them when the sun was shining, instead of on a day when the clouds hung low and her thoughts turned gloomy at the slightest provocation.

Suggesting the soldiers were “still on patrol” gives an indication of possible danger. Use of the words “wary”, “careful”, and the idea that the soldiers are “expecting trouble” heightens the awareness that something might be wrong.

Don’t forget that there is more to the world you are describing than just the feature you are describing. Don’t forget that the day has weather, and use it. The main catch with doing this is that you have to remember what kind of day you’ve set up, and keep the weather consistent, or change the weather in a natural way. In the scene above, it is a typical overcast Canberra day, and this affects how the statues make the character feel. It is also used to highlight how the character feels.

So remember, locations can bring your story to life, or they can drag. You need to use them to advance the story, and make sure that the story, and not the location, remains paramount. Sight, scent, sound and feel, are all important ways of advancing your tale, building atmosphere, and preparing the reader for the next piece of action. An accurate description of the location is important, but describing every minute detail may not be.


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