Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Continuing Education: Location, Location, Location

Sense of Direction: Not just for your characters

Kari Donald, A4A Member

Time for more Continuing Education (our series on Continuity editing...get it?) As authors, whether writing speculative fiction, historical fiction, or something in between, you select locations to provide the best settings for your story. Today, we’re looking at why scrutinizing location as part of a continuity check is so important. 

What does location have to do with Continuity?

So why is location so important? It influences the setting and scene descriptions in your story, plus it impacts the plausibility of events. Remember, during our Continuity edit, we look for things that are out of place or could be distracting to the reader. There are many ways your location can cause a Continuity issue, either by itself or when it integrates into one of the other elements of Continuity. Today, we’ll dive deep into the ways that settings and descriptions (that innate sense of direction all writers have...or not) can make or break your story.

How can using an actual place cause a continuity problem?

Using an actual place puts an additional burden on your narrative since accuracy is a must. Some of your readers may be familiar with your chosen locale. For example, an account of someone that drives their car all the way to the Statue of Liberty will immediately surprise any reader who’s actually visited the landmark and knows the only way to get there is by taking a boat.

Not only can mistakes ruin your credibility, but there isn’t much that will distract a reader faster than the wrong name or detail of a known area. It can be as simple as using “Avenue” instead of “Street,” going the wrong way down a one way street, or having the sidewalk on the wrong side of the road. Add in things like transportation with stops, descriptions of buildings with their surroundings, and events with time of day or seasonal references, and the possibility for errors or misrepresentations becomes endless. Taking these details into account can be a daunting task and probably contributes to the misplaced advice “write what you know.”     

In the words of Roger from Rent, “Zoom in on my empty wallet.”

No problem! Can’t stop by the Live Cafe in person? Writers today have the advantage of a number of tools at their disposal. Google Maps is an invaluable resource for researching locations since you can quite literally immerse yourself in your desired setting. Photo spheres  and street view allow you to take a tour at ground level and see buildings, roads, landmarks, and shops, among many other things. Just be sure to check the date for when the picture was taken. If the photo is dated, some things may have changed, like businesses or the surrounding area. You’ll want to make sure Stuart’s Comic Shop is still open before using it into your story. 

Not only that, but the time of day or year may not match the timeline in your story, so elements like lighting, traffic, and foliage may not be the same. The bottom line here (which is a common theme throughout the Continuity edit) is don’t make assumptions about elements or topics outside your area of expertise. A few minutes of research is worth the investment and often saves lots of editing time later.   

I am using my own world, so I don’t have to worry about location.

If only it were that easy. 

One of the advantages of speculative fiction is that you can create your own world. One of the disadvantages of speculative fiction is that you can create your own world. 

If your location is loosely based on our world, then modeling it after a real place is helpful as all of the details have been worked out naturally. You won’t have to worry about accidentally setting up contradictory situations like a polar ice cap next to an arid desert or a citrus tree growing on top of an alpine mountain. It might work in your favorite video game, but those environments are created to keep a gamer engaged rather than a reader. For example, the fifteen square miles that Skyrim would occupy on our planet makes it easy for a gamer to be a world traveler but is hardly representative of a realistic location. 

It is just as important for world builders to take advantage of the internet to research elements that work for your chosen location. UCB has a pretty good introduction on biomes to get you started.

But my world is totally made up!

Awesome! Some of the most popular series are from made up worlds. You don’t have to be a flat earther to appreciate or accept the plausibility that a story can happen on a flat disc carried about the universe on the back of a turtle (thanks Terry Pratchet). 

The authenticity of characters or situations may be more important, as the focus on them allows readers to lose themselves in your story despite any unrealistic worldbuilding. You just need to put some thought into your location and work out a few details for viability and sustainability. You don’t even need to reveal these details in your narrative, just make sure there is nothing about your location that has contradicting elements or prevents readers from using their imaginations to fill in the blanks. You might have a hard sell that your barren wasteland location can support an abundance of livestock or lush vegetation. 

I am trying to avoid a cliché from a superhero movie about power and responsibility, but you get the idea. Just take into account how the location of the story will fit into your world while you are busy creating. 

Check back next time for some more Continuity tips. Up next: Stellar Cartography.  


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