Using places to anchor the story
Posted on July 22, 2015
The old idiom, ‘write about what you know’ is a truism, but it also recognises a simple fact – that all stories, however imaginative, need some hooks that must be spot on to let us, both the writer and the reader, mentally put our feet down and say, ‘This I understand; I know where I am’. It lets us make some assumptions as we set off through the story. Then it’s up to the writer if we can trust those assumptions, continue to hold them and build our picture of the story on them – or if they sneak up on us with the realisation that we were wrong, dear reader, we’re on a completely different ride to the one we thought we’d boarded.
Sometimes a writer uses plot twists that do this, sometimes a discovery about a character. But it’s rarely the places that change; they tend to be constant and enduring, somewhere you, mentally at least, can get back to. The familiar place may not always be a welcoming place, but if you can see it in your mind’s eye clearly it adds resonance to everything that happens, there and beyond it. For me, for instance, this conjures up the Corn Lane postern gate in Karn in the last chapter of Shadowless.
Messing with places we are connected to is a disturbing experience, and makes you realise how important they are for a reader. A non-writing example of this the opening of animated film Titan AE (2000), when (spoiler alert!) in the space of a few minutes a young boy goes from playing beside an idyllic creek on Earth to witnessing the total destruction of not just that place he knew, but the entire planet. Our personal connections and assumptions make us share his experience of horror and loss. Compare that scene to Star Wars IV which missed a trick by not showing us anything of Alderaan before it is destroyed. We are never connected to the place. We understand the destruction, but we don’t feel it.
In summary, if you’re going to create a place, be it a single room or an entire universe, make that place real enough to resonate with your readers!