Thursday, March 25, 2010

Your Town

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.


  1. Greetings, Ashley,

    I think authors vary in their attachment to place. I wonder, when you read, how do you feel about stories that have a strongly defined locale, versus those that are set in Your Town? Personally I love a tale that oozes local color (if it's well done). Maybe it doesn't matter that much to you.

    Have you read Getaway Girl, my story set in North Yorkshire that you helped me with? I'm wondering how close I came!

    Also your comments about France reminded me of the recent movie "An Education". A young British woman is seduced by a charming rounder who wants to take her to Paris. He cleverly invites her entire family. Her father is horror-struck at the notion of being surrounded by the French, the idea of their awful language and their inedible food...!

    I'd rather write places without McDonalds or Pizza Hut...I only wish more of such places existed.


  2. Lisabet,

    I've read Getaway Girl several times and always enjoyed the trip back home on every occasion. I was born in Yorkshire and you've vividly captured the county's parochial charm.

    Location is always a negligible factor in my own writing because I know it's something which, if it's done, it needs to be done well. My experience of travelling is so limited I'm aware that a specific location would need to be thoroughly researched in the first instance and I don't have the resources available.

    That said, even though it's not a pracitce I use in my own writing, it doesn't stop me from enjoying it when it's done properly by those who can do it.


  3. I'm trying to think of the perfect name for your "pass-thru" English village.

    Car Park on Trent
    or perhaps
    KFC Beyond Twee

  4. Hi Ash!

    When you were talking about Your Town, and an English village with a sinister secret, I was thinking of this scene in a Sherlock Holmes story I read. Holmes and Watson are riding on a train, to go on vacation somewhere in the north country. Watson remarks how beautiful and quiet the little villages look as they pass them. Holmes watches them go by and grumbles that the darkest and most grotesque secrets of man are hidden in just such remote places.

    Two of my literary heroes, Richard Matheson and Stephen King had also your philosophy of the ordinary. Their horror stories are usually set in ordinary places with ordinary things. The Vampire hidden in the garage. The monster in the supermarket aisle. I love the concept of Your Town.


  5. Kathleen,

    I would buy a holiday home in KFC on Twee.

    The problem with a lot of English villages is that they have names that are either strange rude or just too unreal to be believed in fiction.

    My wife was born near 'Bottom Boat' in Yorkshire. I've regularly visited 'Cockermouth.' And I've still to visit 'Lickfold', 'Pidley', 'Upper Dicker' or 'Lower Dicker.'

    Give a fictional village any of those names and the editor will be sneering in disbelief.


  6. Garce,

    Holmes was right. (Isn't he always?)

    I've never felt sufficient affinity with a location to include it as an integral part of my writing. I also like the idea of any reader being able to negotiate the geography of my fiction without needing an intimate knowledge of such-and-such a location.

    As I said before, I truly admire those writers who can bring a locale to life. But, I've also read some books (Shakespeare's Secret springs to mind) where one page is devoted to a list of London street names in a pathetic attempt to make the text look as though it was intimately describing the city. I'm not sure if this trend continued beyond the first chapter. I didn't read any further.



  7. Hi Ash,

    It's odd you know, you say your 'Our Town' then hint and small English villages as if they weren't exotic. A mistake, in my opinion. As a non-Brit, I find anything British or European extremely exciting, and Bottom Boat is right up there believe me.

    Too much detail will kill the mood. Too little and I believe your reader is going to be saying, huh? What-where's that?

    I love the names of the villages in England. I suppose every country has them. We have places like Fanny Bay, which I believe is rude. How about Moose Jaw or Whiskey Creek? LOL


  8. Jude,

    I notice you didn't mention Dildo, Newfoundland ;-) That one also sounds kinda rude.

    I suppose, when I'm writing about a 'Your Town' scenario, it's not exotic: certainly not to the characters who live there.

    But you're right that every location is going to be exotic for someone who doesn't live there. I suppose I should keep that in mind.


  9. Ash,

    What about towns called:

    Flat lick

    Stinkin' Creek

    Both of those were near where I lived in Kentucky. : )

    The first time someone in school told me there were from Stinkin; Creek I thought they were trying to pull one over on me, until I went home and pulled out a map and a magnifying glass. LOL Sure enough, it was just right down the road.

  10. Michelle,

    I also wouldn't have believed there was a legitimate place name of Stinkin' Creek this side of a rough and tumble western movie.

    Although, I did have to go on Google Maps to prove to myself that there was a US place called Intercourse!




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