I’m always fascinated by the worlds that writers create for fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think I’m fascinated by the sheer complexity of creating an entire culture from its laws and religion to its people, plants and landscape.
But basing our stories in the “real world” we all know (or think we know), can be just as complex.
Keeping facts straight.
Using real settings—real towns or cities, real street names, real landmarks— can seem easy because you have everything created already. You don’t have to invent culture, landmarks or names. If you mention the CN Tower or Westminster Abbey, you need only give a few details, and readers can fill in the rest.
Provided you get it right.
You can be sure that if you get it “wrong”, someone’s going to tell you. Or your reader will be aware that you made a mistake once, and be on the alert in case you do it again, so now there is a subconscious element of distrust as they read. At the very least, it will kick them out of the narrative momentarily.
Sure, you can control facts to a large degree with good research and careful editing, but what you can’t control is readers’ reactions to your perceptions of real places. If, like facts, readers think that you got the impression “wrong”, it will be noticed, and have the same effect as getting facts wrong. If, as a narrator, you describe a particular real neighbourhood as “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, that might be your interpretation, but your reader may not agree. Your perceptions of real places are valid, but so are your readers’impressions of the same place.
So what can you do?
Impressions vs. facts
As you write be aware which setting details are facts and which are opinions. Characters only should express all the impressions or opinions. Characters in this instance include the narrator in a first person story. In sections of exposition, stick to facts. This is a good rule of thumb for any details actually, not just for setting. Essentially, setting opinions expressed through exposition become “author intrusion” and open that door for “getting it wrong”.
The moment you move impressions of real places to the realm of character, you have the opportunity to manipulate setting to support other elements like character development and theme.
By choosing to focus on the details the character notices in a setting and what they think and how they feel about it, says as much about the character as the setting. Characters usually notice the things that align with their emotional state and with their level of understanding. You can set or heighten mood and sneak in details that will be important to plot or speak to theme.
Think of a child and his mother entering a fairground. The child is likely feeling excited and looking forward to fun, so will notice details that are colourful, fun and energizing: whirling rides, flags and balloons, stalls full of prizes to be won. The mother might be jaded by years of attending fairgrounds, aware of potential danger and cost. She will notice questionable people, machinery that looks or sounds dangerous and the crush of crowds that make it hard for her to keep track of her child.
Another manipulation is to purposely describe factual details “wrong” to establish an unreliable character.
Fiction and reality fusion
Perhaps the best way to use real settings is to create a fictional piece within the real one. A fictional town in real Northern Ontario. A fictional bar in Paris. You still get the advantages of the “real world” settings, but not the disadvantages. Your fictional component should be similar enough for believability, but you have the freedom to create your own “impressions”’ of the place. You get to decide if the place is “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, and your readers will believe you.