by Ashley Lister
With the majority of my fiction, I try to set it in the generic location of Your Town. The landscape is vaguely familiar to everyone with its bumpy church steeples and chunky, modern office blocks. There are the familiar sights of a Burger King, McDonalds or Pizza Hut, as well as the local museums, schools and book shops. It’s a town that every reader already knows because every reader already lives there. And it’s a town that is nothing more than a convenient location for the story’s events.
I read some authors who bring a city to life, and I read others who personify a location to such an extent it becomes a pathetic fallacy: a character in the fiction with its own distinct personality. I’m not one of those authors. I have never known a location so well I can comfortably write about it in a fictional narrative. So I choose not to set my work in a specific location.
Admittedly, I’ve written novels that were based in such exotic cities as New York, Rome, Paris and London. I’ll be honest with you: I’ve only visited one of those places. The rest of my research came from holiday brochures, movies and online dalliances with Google Maps and other such paraphernalia.
I’ve written one novel where most of the events took place in an English village with a sinister secret. The village looked like every English village I’ve ever driven through whilst trying to find a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut. I didn’t describe the place so it looked like a specific location – it was more an amalgam of English villages.
The same amalgam was applied for the novel I set in rural France. Again, it wasn’t the specific location that was of importance. The essential thing for that story was that my central character was isolated, alone and surrounded by potentially hostile locals. As an Englishman, I figured France would be appropriate for those conditions.
But I’m not a writer who can bring a city, town or village to life, so I don’t bother wasting my efforts. The New York story was placed in that city because it needed the glamour that is quintessentially New York. The Rome story was set in Rome because it was a vampire story and I needed to contrast the vampire’s irreligiousness with Vatican City, as well as my heroine’s involvement with all things operatic. The Paris story needed the allure of contemporary avant garde French culture and the London story completed the trilogy.
As I said before, I respect and admire those authors who can bring a city to life. But, personally, I’m happier writing about Your Town. After all, it’s the place that you know best.