Setting the Scene in Fiction

Is it important to be accurate when setting a scene? Opinions will vary. Writers of fantasy, sci-fi and the like cannot be expected to be accurate, though they should be consistent. If the planet Zog has five moons in chapter one, it should still have five in chapter 9 – unless, of course, four have been vapourised by the evil Kung Fu Manchu – last seen signing off at the end of the eighth reel with the dread words I shall return.

But if you’re writing in a more realistic genre, then a different approach would be more appropriate. A crime novel set in Seattle should accurately reflect that city, likewise a literary novel involving Vienna (and I am not referring here to Rigsby’s cat) should portray that city with an accuracy which reflects the time in which the events are set. The Vienna of Mozart was very different from that of Robert Musil.

I can’t deny being a bit inflexible when it comes to this aspect of the writer’s craft. I have published four novels. Three of them are set in my town of Edinburgh. But the third, The Ears of a Cat, is set in various places including Berlin, Los Angeles and Charmouth, a town in Dorset in the south of England. And while I’ve been to Charmouth, a favoured location for fossil hunters (and I myself am now more of a fossil than a hunter}, I have never set foot in Berlin or Los Angeles.

In the past, I might have gone to the library and taken copious notes from travel guides. But now, thanks to the web, I can visit these places with such immediacy that I can travel down streets, check out the buildings, and supplement what I see on Google Maps by referring to photographs taken at the various locations by helpful travellers who have actually been there.

But for my most recent paperback, Interleaved Lives, I have reverted to my usual practice of visiting locations and documenting them with photographs – for reference only and not for inclusion in the book. And I have done this even though I know most of them well.

This is the house where our hero, Douglas Hunter occupies the upper floor.

And here is the back garden of his house, where a workman investigating a blocked drain makes a troublesome discovery.

Next to Hunter’s house is the disused church where significant action takes place.

And here is a grille which gets an honourable mention.

While casing the joint, Hunter notices new pipework strangely at odds with the rest of the building, with its noticeable outbreaks of moss.

And here is the side door through which Hunter and co enter the church.

Some might say What does it matter: if the story is fiction why not the settings too? I’m not sure why, but to me a degree of accuracy matters.Which is why the pictures shown here are only a selection from a much larger group.

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

2 thoughts on “Setting the Scene in Fiction

  1. Wow, this is actually very interesting. I take the opposite approach though. If I write a short story that is set somewhere I have never visited – say, the Isle of Arran – I will visit it afterwards, to see how well it corresponds with how I have imagined it. If it doesn’t, I will demand that it be changed.

    The novels look worth a punt too. There is one implicitly set in Jenners?

    • I couldn’t have visited Berlin afterwards, and even less so Los Angeles. But if it works for you that’s good. Yes, a Serious Business is based on Jenner’s, though taking liberties. with it.

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