A sense of place in fantasy

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Every book is set somewhere, whether that’s a quasi-medieval world or a space station or a modern city – or even in someone’s mind. An interesting question, though, is how much influence the setting has on the story being told. Lindsey Davis, who writes the Marcus Didius Falco and Flavia Albia historical detective series set in ancient Rome, particular dislikes “books set in Birmingham but you can’t tell that it’s Birmingham.” (Along with some other things – I went to a reading by Lindsey Davis (in Birmingham!) a year or two ago, and she was brilliantly funny.)

Jim Butcher was initially intending to set Harry Dresden in Kansas City (Butcher’s hometown) but his writing teacher persuaded him not to, because it was too similar to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books set in St. Louis. He didn’t want to pick Washington DC because it would mean incorporating politics into the books and didn’t want New York because that’s where all the book editors live; he picked Chicago pretty much at random, and the rest is history… or fantasy. I remember reading that when Butcher started writing the Dresden Files, he hadn’t even been to Chicago or really done any research on the city (the research came later). I don’t know how well Butcher portrays Chicago in general, but an important part of the Dresden Files books is ‘Undertown’ – supposedly the result of the original streets sinking into the swamp and then being built over. Butcher seems to have taken some creative licence there; Chicago does indeed have tunnels – the Pedway – but the first tunnel was built in 1951, as an underground pedestrian route between two underground railway lines. It just sort of expanded from there, without any real plan. A little different from Butcher’s version, although possibly nearly as mysterious! If Butcher had picked some other American town – Miami, maybe, or Philadelphia – would it have made any real difference to how the stories played out?

Right at the other end of the scale, you’ve got the urban fantasy classic Neverwhere, where the nature of London permeates every page and London locations are vital to the story. If you set Neverwhere in, say, New York (or Chicago, or Miami), you’d end up with an entirely different story. Not only would the details have to change, but the feel of the story would have to change too. London has nearly two thousand years of history behind its mysteries, but New York is very much a new city.

Likewise, York (the original one) is only about thirty years younger than London, but the cities are now very different, so urban fantasy set in York would be different to London – and different again if set in Birmingham. Birmingham is a relatively new city – the first documentary evidence of its existence (as a manor worth 20 shillings) being in 1086, although a settlement is thought to have existed earlier. But although Birmingham is the UK’s second-largest city, it’s only a seventh the size of London. It has a different feel to it – newer, less steeped in history, less sure of itself. Birmingham is still a provincial city, without the effortless superiority of the capital. It’s also a manufacturing town in an area hard-hit by the decline of heavy industry, not a political and financial centre. Brummies have made knives and guns and chocolate and jewellery, not financial crises and political scandals.

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy in Birmingham? Less politics, less glamour. People say a lot of things about Birmingham, but none of those things are, “if you want glamour, go to Birmingham.” You’d have to think, why Birmingham? Because the house prices are cheaper? Do vampires care about that? Because it’s in the centre of the UK – that would work, but only if your characters had a reason to need to be somewhere in the middle of the country. What makes Birmingham special, and how can you bring that out as part of the story?

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy series in your town?

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