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Many a creative writing professor has lectured me on the pivotal role a “sense of place” plays in fiction. Writers work hard at creating credible worlds in which to set our stories. We spend sleepless nights trying to draw the reader into these fictional universes. Craft – and every ounce of charm and wit we possess – are devoted to this task. We know that a story with an authentic sense of place will hold the reader under its spell. This truth dawned on me afresh when I took off to London last month for a short stay.
I had never set foot in the city before but I felt a pleasant sense of familiarity as I walked down the streets and stopped to catch my breath in leafy gardens. Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose echoed in my ears: “how beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree–sprinkled, grass–grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally…and far away the rattle of a train.” (Street Sauntering, A London Adventure).
When I strolled down alleys, riverside paths, and quaint, cobbled yards, they came alive with scenes from some of my favorite Dickens novels. Here was the street where Pip had come to meet his lawyer and learn a life-changing truth (Great Expectations). Here lay dark alleys where body snatchers and pickpockets once roamed free (Oliver Twist). A debtor’s prison so tellingly described in Little Dorrit. A hospital, a street corner, a flight of steps under London Bridge, a crumbling ruin of a prison – all of them immortalized in Dickens’ fiction.
Big Ben – that iconic landmark of the English landscape – loomed before me. I looked up at it. It was our first encounter but I felt like I had seen the clockface before. That I had sensed the “leaden circles dissolving” when the clock chimed. Mrs Dalloway had imprinted an indelible picture of it on my mind. Woolf’s fiction had made Big Ben seem so real, so immediate, that when I stood in front of the real thing, it seemed like I already knew it inside out.
London seemed so familiar because it had found a place in some of the best works of fiction I have read. The opposite of this phenomenon also works its magic on us. William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County – a fictional setting for his stories and novels – and placed it within the real Lafayette County, Mississippi in the United States. The fictional county seems every bit as “real” as the actual geographical entity. Faulkner’s readers will vouchsafe for the authenticity of his imagined universe. Faulkner himself liked to challenge his readers by referring to Yoknapatawpha as both “actual” and “apocryphal”.
Margaret Atwood paints a chilling portrait of a totalitarian republic in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Republic of Gilead is painted with such deft strokes that it takes only a few pages for it to acquire the legitimacy of a place on the map. Gilead exists in an apocryphal future but the echoes of contemporary reality are felt there. Using a potent mix of fact and fiction, history and prophecy, and lyrical prose, Atwood imbues Gilead with an eerily real quality.
What does it take to create an immortal fictional world? What ingredients go into its making? What holds up the world on the page when all else crumbles into dust? There is no readymade recipe, no formulaic answer at hand. All a writer can do is to try and paint a specific and detailed picture. Be true to the setting – if a novel or story is set in a certain period in history, get the details right. Do a backbreaking amount of research. Know everything there is to know about that period. If your work revolves around the lives of characters who belong to a particular profession (doctors, lawyers, conmen, poets, strippers, astronauts, journalists..) make sure you understand how things work in their world. Set down the rules of the world at the start. Be straight with your readers. They deserve to get under the skin of your characters and the universe they occupy.
Be consistent. If your novel is set in the past (“never dead,” “not even past”) then the characters must walk and talk and dress a certain way throughout. Similarly, if your story is set in a specific contemporary milieu – make sure the details of the setting are accurate and authentic. Above all remember to get the “human fact” right. This is the backbone of a fictional universe. This is what makes it come alive and keeps it safe from the ravages of time.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).