Imaginary Places

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Location is crucial to a novel. For crime fiction, which is a very crowded market, it’s almost as important as plot and characterisation. There’s a serial killer loose? We need to know where. Is s/he pounding the streets of East End London, or moving among the movie star wannabes in Los Angeles? Swedish crime novels are the Hot New Thing at the moment, and I’m sure that part of the appeal is the Otherness of Sweden – a country that most people haven’t visited, and its uniqueness – both in climate and the attitude of the population – make it a fascinating backdrop.

Of course, the location of a novel can only pull your readers in if it feels like a real place. If you’re going to write about a real place, you need to convince readers who’ve actually been there. If I write about a real place in my stories, it’s generally London, or parts of London that I know pretty well. But that’s because I’m rather lazy about the research. If I have to set a story in a place I don’t know very well, I’ll create a fictitious place, rather than research a place I’ve never been to.

For SUFFER THE CHILDREN, I made up a fictitious town in Surrey, called Stanbridge. The town itself doesn’t exist, but it’s based on a combination of other Surrey towns, and I hope it comes across as a real place in the novel. For DEATH SCENE I used real-life locations – the book is set in and around London and Sutton. I wanted Shara to have a real-life grounding, a chronological time line in an actual place. It does mean that I have to be careful with location, as when you use a real place you have to respect the features that are actually there. If you throw in an abandoned warehouse on a street that actually exists and is exclusively a residential area, the residents might feel the need to correct you.

The current work in progress – the horror novel – is set partly in the Forest of Dean and partly in London. I don’t know the Forest of Dean all that well, but it’s a vast ancient forest and I don’t think anyone knows every tree intimately.  However, it became necessary to take my characters to a town on the outskirts of the Forest of Dean. It had to be a small, old town.  Since I don’t know the area all that well I thought I would just make up a town. After playing around with a few letter combinations the name Lydney came to mind, and seemed to work.

Earlier this week I discovered there actually is a town called Lydney – and it’s a small town on the outskirts of the Forest of Dean. I found it while looking someone up on the database during the day job. One of my committee members actually lives there, so I suspect this knowledge had been lodged in my brain for a while, and my brain threw out this information when a request for the name of a town in the Forest of Dean came to light.

The only problem is, having never been to Lydney I have no idea if my Lydney bears any resemblance to the real life one. And because I really don’t want irate Lydney townspeople writing me to protest what I’m doing to their town – and not just taking extreme liberties with the layout – I think I need to change the name. I’d far rather use a fictitious town. So I’m going to have to come up with another name for my fictional little town in the Forest of Dean.

I’d be interested to hear other writers’ views on this. Do you prefer fictional locations for your settings, or real ones?

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