Friday, 19 August 2011

Location Location Location

Edge Author Katie Dale asks How Important is Location in Fiction?

Is it important where a story is set? At first consideration it might not seem to matter too much, and in some cases the location is pretty interchangeable. For example, Sam in Before I Fall could pretty much attend any US high school – or even be relocated to the UK, as the teen social scene is fairly similar (which is one of the reasons the book is so thought-provoking – this could happen to anyone.) But imagine Wuthering Heights set anywhere but the Yorkshire moors, or The Beach anywhere but Thailand. Indeed, sometimes location even almost becomes a character in its own right, such is its impact on the characters and plot.

Location affects among many things the climate of the story, the culture, the laws the characters must live by, what they wear, how they speak – the list is endless. Consequently, choice of location must be considered carefully.

Some authors choose real-life locations – Forks in the Twilight saga (whose largely overcast and inclement weather proves beneficial to its resident vampires); Hayling Island in Miriam Halahmy’s Hidden (vital as the location Alix encounters an illegal immigrant); others use real locations under a fictional name (e.g. Sarah Dessen’s Lakeview is based on Chapel Hill, North Carolina); whilst yet others create worlds all of their own – Middle-earth, Hogwarts, Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, Narnia – where the reader is reliant on the author to paint absolutely every detail for them in their imagination. What a responsibility – and what an opportunity!

Detail is equally important when using a real place – it must be accurate enough that if a reader visits (or lives there) they will find it as described in the novel. In my upcoming book, Someone Else’s Life, my main character, Rosie, discovers she was swapped at birth and tries to trace her real family to the States. Luckily, I had visited all the US locations, but when I did research to flesh out the details I discovered that sometimes fact is even more incredible than fiction! – I could never have invented a giant lobster-pot Christmas tree or the giant black and white photos covering the pier!

Whether real or imaginary, as well as affecting and enhancing the plot, a well-created sense of place enriches the reading experience no end. To feed the reader’s imagination in such a way that they actually feel like they’re physically transported to that setting – seeing, touching, tasting and smelling everything around them – is one of the most powerful things about fiction, truly bringing a story to life. Wherever a book’s location may be – real, imaginary, or somewhere in-between – perhaps the most important thing is that it must feel real for the reader. I'll always remember feeling Lyra's cold in Northern Lights, the stickily warm exotic night air in Sarah Singleton's The Island, and Lucy's delighted amazement as she steps through the wardrobe into a snow-covered Narnia, and I thrill at the knowledge that at any time I can revisit any one of these places and many, many more besides, simply by opening a book.

What are your favourite literary locations? Do you prefer real places or imaginary worlds?

Someone Else's Life by Katie Dale will be published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and Delacorte Press in the US in February 2012


  1. Lovely post Katie and one of my fave subjects. I have two locations I revisit - one of them is the sea and of course Hayling Island features in Hidden and the next two books. But I have also set a short story on the east coast of England and I am currently working on a setting around Lyme Regis. However, my other favourite location is the inner city. I've never yet set a book in an imaginary location. That would be fun!

  2. This is such an interesting topic. Using a location as another character in a story can really add another layer to the story. I'm thinking of how Hardy used 'Wessex' in his novels, especially in The Return of the Native where the landscape and how the different characters interacted with it, spoke volumes about them. I aspired to create a real sense of place in my book, Celia Frost. I wanted The Bluebell Estate to be a menacing, oppressive character and in contrast, create another place that was beautiful, untamed and freeing- able to reflect and affect how the character was feeling and changing.

  3. A great post, Katie, and so central to any story. A long time ago I wrote an epic fantasy trilogy and had the most amazing time making up the world my characters inhabited! The Long Weekend is a very different book to the fantasy, but although there is no definite sense of where exactly the book is set and the location is very much part of the background, I hope the reader sees and feels the woods and the dark mansion. My current 'work in progress' has a more exotic location...

  4. I've come around to the idea of location - in my earliest writing the location was always very sketchy - Anytown, Anywhere. But I've found it's really helpful to have a real place to use as a jumping-off point, you can then embroider it as necessary for the needs of the narrative. Google Street Map is amazing - as a reluctant traveller it's really changed the way I conceptualise my characters' environment and helped me to check stuff without always having to rely on my memory of a place.