Behind the Scenes: How I develop my settings (Part 1 - real places)
Thursday, July 20, 2023

I just spent two days learning everything I could about the abandoned subway structures under Philadelphia (which I didn't even realized existed until about three days ago). Before that, I used Google Maps to virtually walk the Northwest Territories of Canada in search of the perfect, secluded spot for a secret conclave.
Setting my stories in real world places helps ground the otherwise fantastic tales and (hopefully) makes them more believable, thereby allowing readers to fully embrace the less mundane bits without any hiccups. It adds a sense of "this could be true" to the tale. But crafting fantasy settings out of real places comes with its own set of pitfalls. I have to be careful when using real names, real businesses, real streets even. What if a restaurant I mention closes? The book is now dated. What if I describe a specific plaza wrong and someone who lives there notices? They'll get caught up in the inconsistencies and taken out of the story. I have to be careful, but I think it’s worth the risk.
I’m curious how other writers come up with the setting for their stories. I usually have the basics of my entire story, the outline, if you will, figured out before I know where a story is going to happen. Then I spend some time brainstorming on what features would best bring out the conflict, what I need logistically to make the story work, and what sort of environment fits the mood/theme of the story. Take my current short story for example.
I needed several connected but out-of-the way places that could be creepy/scary where people could fight without anyone noticing. An abandoned building would work, but where could I find three such buildings close together without straining believability? The subway! There are lots of stretches of tunnels, and not all of them are in use at any given time. They’re also a way to travel unseen through the city. Bonus! I can now connect several locations via these creepy passages, and at least one fight can happen in the tunnels themselves.
Next step, find out which cities have subways. I didn’t want to do New York. The New York subways get enough attention. I settled on Philadelphia. Then I started drilling down into maps and neighborhood descriptions, and lo and behold, what should I find but a rich history of planned and abandoned subway construction. A partially complete underground pedestrian concourse. Several sections of sealed-off tunnels beneath China Town. A derelict station that’s become a graffiti mecca. I’d struck gold! Not one but ALL of my scenes could find a home in this sprawling underground labyrinth, and I didn’t even have to stretch the truth. History is rich with such gems if we’re lucky (and diligent) enough to find them, and those nuggets of truth can bring a story to life.
All this is not to say I don’t LOVE completely imagined settings. Maybe I’ll write a post about creating the totally fantastical fae realms from my Magicsmith series. ;) The point is, while research is by far the most time-consuming part of my writing process, and I sometimes feel not very productive on research days because my word count doesn’t go up, having a solid setting can add a wonderful, engaging dimension to your story—more than just making sure your characters aren’t floating in empty space.