A couple of weeks ago, I was in an extraordinary place: Rotorua in New Zealand, where bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and steam-wreathed villages create an amazing otherworldly atmosphere, complete with sound effects (gurgle, hiss, splash) and smell (rotten eggs, burnt toast). It’s a place full of stories, of course: Maori legends, tales of historical tragedies, love stories and scary stories…A place to fire the imagination! And one which could be a living example of the idea that setting does not have to be just a backdrop to story, but almost a character in itself.
It’s easy to see that in Rotorua, where the bubbling mud seems ready at any moment to spew out a strange creature, the very hot springs sometimes called murder ripples have a weirdly placid beauty under their clouds of steam, and the fires of the earth’s center are much closer to the surface than is truly comfortable to think about for too long. Here, a writer can–and in my case, does–file away verbal and written impressions as well as photos and videos to help in the creation of a fictional setting that won’t be actually Rotorua, but will be greatly inspired by it. And like the real place, it will be more than just a backdrop.
That kind of real-world setting, which in its extraordinary distinctiveness can seem almost fictional (as, in a contrasting but complementary example, a city like Venice, which I’ve also used in my fiction, does as well) might seem like an easy way into creation of a fictional world. After all, how hard can it be to take elements like boiling mud and clouds of steam and sleeping volcanoes—or gondolas and bridges and golden-domed palaces–and fictionalize them? Don’t all you need to do is simply faithfully transcribe what your senses tell you?
Newsflash: What must be believed in real life because you see it (and smell it!) in front of your nose is not so obvious when you’re dealing with fiction. You have to work at it to make your reader believe, even when you’re departing from a real-world setting as atmospheric as Rotorua or Venice, and even–or perhaps especially–when you are creating fantasy fiction. So how do you do it? What do you leave in, and what do you leave out?
Here’s my advice, based on some of the things I’ve learned over the years:
- Choose just two or three striking elements from your real-world setting to include in the initial description of your fictional setting, or risk overwhelming the reader with detail. You can always sneak in extra elements later.
- Don’t be afraid to mix and match: Combine elements from different real-world places to create one fictional setting. Yes, you could have mud pools and gondolas—provided you can think of a believable way it might work!
- Look at the history of the place that has inspired you; elements from its past might be transposed into your fictional setting. For example, in the 19th century, a volcanic eruption near Rotorua wiped out a village and the magnificent (and natural) pink and white rock terraces it was famous for. In fiction, those terraces could still be in existence…
- Consider the ways in which the physical setting—land, water, sky—interacts with characters. How do people live in the real-world place you have based your setting on? How can that be transposed and transformed in your fictional world?
- Don’t just describe a place for the sheer pleasure then leave it aside. It should mean something, if you are going to take the time over it.
Over to you: What real-world places have most inspired you, as a writer? And what are your top tips for creating great settings inspired by real places?