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Writing Excuses 7.8: The City As Character

Writing Excuses 7.8: The City As Character


Key points: Let your passion for a place feed the story. Look for special places, and put your characters and events in real places. Make the location feel lived in. Where are the bad parts? How do people get around? Especially if you are using a real place, get it right. Arson can help with narrative problem solving. Even nonexistent settings do better in a real neighborhood. Accuracy adds flavor, and so does passion.

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. Live at World Fantasy. We're going to be talking about the city as character.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] And this is...
[Sarah] Sarah Pinborough.

[Dan] Excellent. Sarah is our guest star this week. We're very excited to have you here. Sarah, tell us a little bit about yourself and your books.
[Sarah] I started out as a horror writer. I wrote six straight horror novels for Leisure books in America. I now write for Gollancz and Quercus, mainly kind of crossover genre books, crime and YA. Crime with sort of sci-fi elements, horror elements, and YA fantasies. [Inaudible]
[Dan] Very cool. Excellent. I'm actually right now reading A Matter of Blood by you which I am loving.
[Sarah] Excellent, because this would be terrible if you said I'm hating it.
[Dan] I'm really hating it.
[Sarah] I'm really hating this...
[Dan] I got you on to this podcast specifically to call you out in public...
[Sarah] Point that out.
[Dan] On your horrible writing. No, it's a fantastic book...
[Sarah] Thank you.

[Dan] And I'm really liking it. So what we want to talk about today is using a city as a character, whether that is a real city, such as London, where Sarah does a lot of her stuff, or an imaginary city. My three serial killer books are set in Clayton, which is a totally made-up town in middle America somewhere. So, Sarah, tell us. Why did you choose to set this in London and why... How did you use the city to tell the story?
[Sarah] Well, I mean, locations are quite interesting. At first, when I first started writing, I would use locations based on where I lived because it saved the research. People would say, "Oh, you use your hometown." I would say, "Yes, I did." [Inaudible] I know it. But with London... I lived in London for a lot of years. I'm moving back there. As I've got older, I realized that it is probably my favorite place in the world as a city. Because it's got so much history. You go to New York... Fabulous city, but it doesn't have a 1000 years of history. We have like the Thames, you can imagine people having their heads cut off down at Traitor's Gate, etc. I think there was a shift in me from going from, "Oh, yeah, that'll be easy to write about," to realizing how much my passion for London could feed into the stories. London is a very gritty place. It's... New York is a fast-paced city, but London has a kind of coldness, I think, that maybe New York doesn't have. People never look at each other when they walked around London. Everyone's head down, the weather's terrible, everyone's trying to get somewhere. It doesn't have the high-powered element of New York. There's a sense of success about New York, whereas with London, you get a sense that London's surviving. There is that kind of "we're just surviving" in London, but we're proud of it. So when I started planning the Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy, which is gritty, dystopic, with a very damaged lead character, London seemed like the ideal place to set that. It can be gritty, it can be cold. Just the historical parts of the city have a life of their own. There is a magic in... To me, history is fantasy for adults. So you can use history to create something quite magical. Especially in the YA books, more... In the Nowhere Chronicles, I've used it much more to create a sense of fantasy, just out of the history of the place. The different strange locations and the old buildings and stuff that's happened...
[Dan] London is great for that. There's tenement slum apartments in London that were built before my country was discovered. It is an old place.

[Sarah] And yet, you never see it. The thing with London is there's so much you don't notice. You can go on... A friend of mine, when she was pregnant, it was her birthday so she didn't want to go drinking, she didn't want to do just the normal thing... So she said let's go to one of these London walks. You turn up, and there's normally an actor who then guides you around. There's a Jack the Ripper one, there's quite obvious ones. She said she wanted to go on one called the Secret Village of Clerkenwell. Clerkenwell is the mile at the heart of London. Just near the city of London, it's where St. Paul's is, where the Old Bailey is. But when they took us on this walk... I mean it was amazing, because there was some Americans there, God bless you. They had this church, that was like 600 years old. But there was a scene from Love Actually that had been filmed in there. That was what got the Americans excited. It was like, "Oh, my God, they filmed this wedding there." Whereas the rest of us are like, "Oh, they killed this priest here, and this person got..." We're like, "Wow, this is quite historic." You see bits of London on these walks that you would never, ever notice. There's a place called Postman's Park that... There's a tiny little churchyard, and it has these plaques on the wall. Each ceramic plaque tells the story of someone who gave their life to save another ordinary person. Which I've used in the YA books, one of the children hides something important behind one of these plaques. Kids I've then taught and told that to when I was a teacher, would go and look... Go into the [ghost] London and say, "Yes, yes I saw that place." It brings it kind of to life. There's so much that you don't see when you walk around it, of history. So you'll have something really old next to something really modern. Often like a tiny little church and a big skyscraper. Like... New York has that too, to a certain extent, but... So there's always something to see, there's always something to learn. I think I'll never know the whole story of that city. So there is... It's alive to me, London.

[Mary] So when you're writing these things, do you think about, "Oh, I know this really cool piece of history, how can I use it?" Or do you think...
[Sarah] I did... With the YA ones, I did that more. I would get guidebooks on weird places in London. And think, "Oh, wow!" Then I'd go and have a look and think, "That would be really good for them to do this in." With the adult ones, it was more things like, "Where does this policeman live?" And "Where do the bad guys live?" There's a group of people in the book called the Network, a kind of a sinister organization. So especially by book 2 and book 3, I'm thinking    well, where would they have... If they were going to have a secret headquarters, which would obviously have to be somewhere in plain view, because the best secret headquarters are always in plain view... Then walking around London, and there's the University College London building, which was used in, I think, the Batman films or something. It's a beautiful building. So I've kind of used half of that. They've got secret things on the top floors of this. So you can kind of see it if you walk around. It's just... It saves the imagination, I think. Just a wander around London, it gives me so many different ideas. I think it... Like you have your fictional town, and I think Castle Rock was probably the first example of... Stephen King's Castle Rock... And Derry, to me, are kind of the first example of towns as a character you will. I used to read those books. I could imagine that place. You kind of... The sort of things that could happen there [garbled -- Salem's Lot] so I think it's... I think I will always set books in London. My next ones are set in the 19th century in London.
[Mary] That's what I'm working on right now too.
[Sarah] Is it? So send the research my way when you're done.
[Mary] I was going to say... We can just say...
[Sarah] I've got Kim Newman as my research assistant, so that's [inaudible] quite nice.

[Dan] I want to come back to this, but first, we need to pause for our book of the week. This... Sarah's going to tell us about the Terror.
[Sarah] The Terror by Dan Simmons, which was recommended to me by someone. It's about 1000 pages long. It is about what could have happened to the Terror and the Erebus, that did expeditions to the Antarctic back... Which was in the 19th century, way back then. It gives... They're beautifully researched. The structure of the story is absolutely astounding. It just... It's kind of an alternate version of what could have happened. Because obviously the ships were lost. They were landlocked. They were found years later. There was no one there, all the bodies were gone, etc. so it gives this whole kind of very historically accurate retelling of the story of the Erebus and the Terror. Just... I mean, I read it in the middle of winter, so it was obviously freezing outside. As they're trekking across the ice in this... But it's an astounding piece of structural writing as well as storytelling. It made me really rethink... For this new work that I'm doing for Quercus, it was part of the inspiration. So... I'm going to do something kind of relocating, rewriting history. [Inaudible]
[Dan] All right. Dan Simmons is one of my very favorite authors.
[Sarah] So read it!
[Dan] I am going to absolutely look this one up. This is not one of his I've read. So you can get your free trial membership at audible, and get a free copy of this audio book. You go to and sign up. So. All right. Let's get back to our topic...
[Sarah] Although... Can I just add?
[Dan] Yes, you can.
[Sarah] It is actually a genre book. So it's not... It is a genre book. It has a weirdness... There is this monster on the ice.
[Dan] Nice.
[Sarah] I should have mentioned that. But I kind of presume everything's genre, right?
[Dan] Because everything is... We just assume...
[Sarah] There are no other books. Everything's genre. We just assume...

[Dan] Okay. So let's talk specifically about for writers, using cities... Like you said, using them as characters. Really taking advantage of the location, whether it's a real one or a fake one. My Serial Killer books are set in the made-up town of Clayton, which is just a completely fabricated town. But part of what I was trying to do with that is really establish it as a real place. It's not just... They don't just go to McDonald's. They go to this particular McDonald's. Or because it's a small town, this other completely independent little burger joint that everybody goes to and everybody knows and you probably know the cashier... So making it feel more lived in, I guess is what I was trying to do. Mary, Sarah, whoever wants to answer this. How do you do that?

[Mary] One thing for me that I look at is where the bad parts of town are, and try to make sure that my characters have attitude and awareness of those bad parts of town. Then I also look at how people get around. Like Portland, Oregon, is very, very bike friendly. Then Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is where my family is, there aren't even sidewalks.
[Sarah] Oh, wow.
[Mary] So it is very much a car culture. It completely changes the way you experience a place. So for me, reflecting that in the fiction is also important, because it would reflect how my character experiences it as well.
[Sarah] I found with A Matter of Blood and the subsequent books in that trilogy, I was very keen to be entirely accurate with London, simply because of the weirdness of the story. So I think it anchors... If you're going to write something a little bit offkilter, and there's suddenly sort of... Someone's seeing a ghost or whatever, it has to be anchored very firmly. If you're going to use a real city, that city has to be real. I mean, I did... When I wrote the second one, I had... He... There was a terrorist attack at the beginning of the second book, so several of the London Underground stations are bombed. So I had this chase at one point, through Covent Garden Station, and I know Covent Garden Station, I should have known this. There are no escalators. There are no escalators. I had this scene going down the escalators. My editor [Jo Fletcher?] was just like, [whisper] "Sarah?" [Laughter] Because she's a London girl. "There are no escalators at Covent Garden." I thought well, thank God for her, because I'd've been... But it was things like that. They do at [something Memorial] and Leicester Square. I was thinking, "Okay, it is still London, but I've bombed that station. This road will be closed off. That whole area will be closed off. How am I going to get these people from there to there?" So I spent an awful lot of time on multimaps.
[Dan] Well, that's a very important concern, I think, when you're using a real place. The obvious example that comes to mind was the recent remake of the movie Taking of Pelham 123. Set in Manhattan, directly involving the subway system, and everyone who lives in Manhattan and half the people who ever visited there...
[Mary] Froths...
[Dan] Saw that movie and just laughed and laughed and laughed.
[Sarah] Oh, really?
[Dan] Because it was wildly, ridiculously inaccurate.
[Mary] And unnecessarily so.
[Dan] Yes.
[Sarah] So how was it... Was it... Do they have the lines wrong... And they had...
[Dan] Yeah, the kind of thing like, "Well, we better take the F train because that'll go here." And no, it doesn't. It doesn't go anywhere near there.
[Sarah] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Dan] But there is a train that goes there, so they could have just used that. But...
[Sarah] It does disturb the [inaudible] people, because I've been caught out on things. I wrote... I did write one book for Leisure set in London. I even put a caveat... Because I was thinking, oh, it's only for the American audience, and they're not going to particularly know that there is no wharf in this part of London. But I did put it in the beginning. I have taken some liberties in order for this story to work with the [space?] of London. Because it only takes somebody to read it and go, "Actually, that couldn't happen." It looks lazy to me, it just looks lazy on the storyteller's part if you haven't got your city right.
[Dan] So you made the choice to alter it slightly. When is a time when you would want to make that choice?
[Sarah] Well, it was... If I'm honest, there was two things at work. Number one, I knew it was for an American audience, not an English audience. I wouldn't have done that for a UK audience, because they would know it.
[Dan] Because they would get... Yeah.
[Sarah] I'm presuming that... They say so many Americans don't have passports, I'm banking on it.
[Dan] So you were writing this for dumb Americans? Okay.
[Sarah] No, just less well-traveled ones. Also, and this is even worse in some ways, it was a book that I was kind of contractually obliged to write, but I just wanted to write and be done with. So rather than thinking of a way around that, I wanted them to be at the O2 Center in London and then I needed them to get away from the O2 Center in London. So I was damn well going to put [beepers] there that they could get away on. So I needed a little harbor thing, which isn't there. Like a marina kind of thing. But it was lazy. I wasn't happy with myself for it. [Garbled. Maybe So there's the secret.]
[Dan] I apologize for probing that wound.

[Mary] I have a... I was working on a historical fiction set in Nashville, Tennessee. I needed it to be happening at the Ryman Auditorium which... Because Teddy Roosevelt visited there. But the Ryman Auditorium is the home of the Grand Ole Opry, and I knew that there were no dressing rooms. But there have been dressing rooms at one point, so I was researching to find out where they were located. It finally turned out that there were... They were just cloth partitions. I'm like, "Okay, there's no way that anyone would ever have a secret conversation in a cloth partitioned room." I also knew that if I moved Teddy Roosevelt and the entire action to the Vendome, that my audience would go, "Well, Teddy Roosevelt never went there." So I just burned the Ryman down.
[Sarah] Nice! Nice.
[Mary] I inserted a reason. I'm like, "It's an alternate history anyway, so I'm just going to set this building on fire." Then it makes perfect narrative sense for everybody to be over at the Vendome.
[Dan] I approve of arson as a form of narrative problem solving.
[Mary] Of course you do.
[Dan] That's fantastic. No, and I liked what you said, Sarah, about writing your book with the map program open.
[Sarah] Oh, gosh, yeah.
[Dan] Because I do that all the time. I'm writing one right now set in Manhattan. I just finished a book set in Long Island. Yeah, I had Google maps open, and I know where every house is, and how they get from one to another.
[Sarah] It's so much nicer now that you actually can see the street. Because it used to just be that you could get a layout, couldn't you? But now when you have the satellite image, and like, "Oh, that's the kind of house they have." Because you... I'd pick the street for someone to live on, and I'd think, "Is a tree-lined, or is it this? Am I going to get it right?"
[Dan] Well, it doesn't matter to a lot of readers that you're completely accurate in most cases. But for those to whom it does matter, they're going to appreciate it more. Everyone else, even if they don't notice the accuracy, they will notice, I hope, the kind of added realism, the extra life that comes in.
[Mary] Well, one thing that I was going to say, is that there's actually a way to cheat this as well. Which is to insert a street that you mentioned as being in a neighborhood. I'm thinking of Holmes and Watson, the apartment that they lived in doesn't exist, not really.
[Sarah] 221B.
[Dan] I know. I went there when I was in London. I was so disappointed. There's a plaque on the wall that says, "Yup. This is it."
[Sarah] This is where it would be, if there was such an apartment.
[Dan] Dang it.
[Mary] But you can insert a street that's not actually there, and then refer to other landmarks. Just don't connect the street directly to anything. People will totally buy that it's a real place, and allow you to house things that aren't there.

[Sarah] Because when it's done wrong... I mean, there was... I know this is sort of veering off from books, but when they did the Stephen King Nightmares and Dreamscapes TV adaptations, which weren't good. But the worst one was... There's a story called Crouch End, which is a part of North London, and they filmed it clearly somewhere in America that looks like something out of Desperate Housewives. Crouch End does not look anything like that. So when I watched it, I was like, "Well, I can't engage with this story at all, because it's supposed to be Crouch End, and they can't even be bothered to go and look at Google maps and see what kind of street they should be running along?" I think in some respects, the Internet has made people expect more accuracy from writers. Because it's so much easier now to get your facts right than it would have been 25 years ago. Can you imagine? Actually having to do proper research? Rather than just Wikipedia?
[Dan] Oh, man. Well. The point I think we want to end on, because we're pretty much out of time, is that even more important than the accuracy is the added flavor that comes from really just making it real.
[Sarah] Because you really have to love the place. Like... Your place is fictional, but you love it, it's yours, it's created. I love London. So, I think that passion for the place has to really bring it to life. If it's going to be important to the story, then it has to... You have to have a passion for it. And if you haven't got that accuracy, then...

[Dan] All right. Okay. Mary, I apologize for this, but...
[Mary] I knew you were going to do this.
[Dan] Can you give us a writing prompt?
[Mary] Yes. Take a city to which you have been, and set a chase scene from point A to point B.
[Dan] Very nice.
[Sarah] Oh, she's good.
[Dan] I know. It's because we do this to her all the time. Excellent. All right. You are out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: accuracy, arson, characters, events, flavor, neighborhood, passion, setting, travel
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