LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: 5 Rules for Effective Use of Location
by J. Daniel Parra
The old real estate adage is “location, location, location!” The same applies to fiction. Whether your story is set in the present date, 500 years ago, or 5,000 years from now, the texture of your novel is greatly informed by its location or locations.
Imagine Huck Finn without the Mississippi, Jay Gatsby without Long Island, Scarlett O’Hara without Atlanta, Hamlet without Denmark, or even Bella Swann without Forks. Character and location are intrinsically linked, helping to tell a story and bring it to life. If your story effectively lends itself to a location, evoking this location in a realistic way is half the battle.
In my novel, Pieces of Tracy, locations are a key ingredient, influencing my heroine, Tracy Leon, who toggles between two cities, two identities, and two loves. To me the key was contrasts. If she’s demure and rigid in a tough town like New York, she’s wanton and feisty in a playful town like Rome. In New York, I made sure she had plenty of responsibilities and obligations. But in Rome, Tracy (as Felicia) is able to indulge her senses, to let her hair down and tap into her artistic tendencies.
Each city invokes different qualities in Tracy, tugging at her passions.
Locations are the building blocks of my story, each place creating conflicting backdrops that underscore the tensions in the main character’s personal life.
Five rules for effective use of location:
1. Do your research. Whether you buy a plane ticket or visit the nearest library, make sure you immerse yourself in the facts. There’s no excuse for inaccuracy, especially in this age of Wikipedia and Google. The payoff for good research can be big. For instance, Mario Puzo says that he wrote The Godfather, “entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster.”
2. Make it your own. It might be very tempting to write about, say, an artist in Renaissance Florence. But if you do, remember that lots of other writers have been there before. If you choose to write about a familiar location, make sure you steer of what reader’s expect. A good example is James Joyce, who in writing about Dublin, truly makes it uniquely his own.
3. It’s okay to embellish or re-interpret. Sometimes, it’s okay to take liberties, as long as you’re not violating anything that’s going to be difficult to rationalize. James Clavell wrote several bestsellers set in China and Japan. In Shogun, for which he meticulously researched feudal Japan (see rule #1!), he created a totally fictional character, John Blackthorne, who’s patterned after an actual English sailor who visited Japan, but is the author’s own creation altogether, allowing him to create his own interpretation of real events.
4. Don’ t let a location overwhelm the scene. It still has to be about the characters. Some authors are likely to be a little overindulgent, including as much of their research in their work but that could be distracting. If you are writing a scene about two people breaking up during a vacation in Montreal, make it about the break-up. Montreal, lovely as it might be, should still be a backdrop.
5. Create your own location. If one doesn’t exist, you can make it up, especially if you’re a sci-fi or fantasy writer. C.S. Lewis grounded his Chronicles of Narnia in World War II England but let his imagination run wild in Narnia where he could make all the rules and establish his own history.
There you have ‘em. Wherever or whenever your story takes place, pack these tips along with your passport.