Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Creating a Fictional Town

By Kathleen Peacock

JH: As a fantasy writer, I've done a lot of articles on creating a fantasy world, but today, author Kathleen Peacock is going to share with us her tips on creating a fictional town in the real world. 

Kathleen is the author of the upcoming Hemlock , the first book in a young adult trilogy slated for release in Summer 2012 by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Take it away Kathleen...

Going to Town

Cassandra Clare’s New York and Charles de Lint’s Newford. Both are vibrant, complex cities where magic lurks beneath the surface. Both are realized with incredible detail on the page. New York exists. Newford does not.

When I was writing Hemlock, I went the Charles de Lint route and decided to create my own fictional locale. It wasn’t easy. Though I had a fairly solid picture of the town in my head, I struggled with getting enough details on the page in initial drafts.

Still, I think I may have learned just enough to give a few pointers. Here’s one way you can go about creating a fictional setting for a contemporary story.

Phase One: The Skeleton

First, sketch out the most basic of basic details.

How large is your city or town? Is it a place where everyone knows their neighbors or is it just large enough for someone to get lost in? This will likely be determined by your characters and your plot needs.

What about the terrain, climate, and vegetation? Do they matter to your story? If you’re going to write about a crazy cult that sacrifices unicorns in the woods (who would do such a dastardly thing?), you should have a forest somewhere nearby. What about the different seasons and the weather? Does it rain like Forks or is it dry like Phoenix?

How much do the economy and demographics of your town matter? In Hemlock, there is a very clear socioeconomic divide between my main character and her friends. One of the geographical features of the town subtly reinforces this. Hemlock is built on a river with my main character living in a working-class neighborhood on one side and her friends living in a more affluent neighborhood on the other. At night, my main character can see the lights from the other side of town reflected on the water.

Phase Two: Ellen Page it Up

Once you have the basic skeleton down, it’s time to flesh things out. For me, the easiest way was to draw on places that actually exist, plucking up bits and pieces like I was that Ellen Paige character in Inception.

“Only use details—a streetlamp or a phone booth—never entire areas.” – Cobb, Inception

Like Cobb, I tried to avoid basing my fictional locations too much on single, real buildings and streets. Though the overall atmosphere of the town does resemble the city I lived in while attending college, the actual streets, neighborhoods, and buildings are unique mishmashes of several sources.

In terms of layout, your plot and characters will likely come heavily into play. In my own story, certain areas—like my MC’s part-time job—had to be within walking distance while others required cars or public transportation. Remember: You are creating this town; don’t be afraid to create what you need or to make adjustments.

Phase Three: Window Dressing

Small (seemingly insignificant) details can make a place seem more real. A high school mascot, the age of a building, the color of a coffee shop awning, or a flyer on a telephone pole—tiny details can be a bit like mortar: they help shore up bigger building blocks.

I’m not saying you should go crazy and describe everything, but you can look for small ways to incorporate detail.

Even though your city or town was created in your mind, it’s real to your characters and it should feel real to your readers. Creating a setting which resonates can be challenging and sometimes takes a few tries but, ultimately, makes for a stronger story.

Kathleen spent most of her teen years crushing on authors and writing really bad short stories about vampires (this isn't false modesty-the stories were pretty awful). She put her writing dreams on hold while attending college, but tripped over them when office life started leaving her with an aversion to blazers and an allergy to cubicles. HEMLOCK, book one in a trilogy, is her first novel.

About the Hemlock Trilogy

Five months ago, Mackenzie “Mac” Dobson’s best friend Amy was killed by a werewolf in a string of unsolved attacks. As she struggles to find closure, Mac realizes the only way to move past Amy’s death is to figure out who killed her and why.

But looking for the killer drags secrets into the light and opens doors that might have been better left shut. In a town under siege by a werewolf virus, everyone has something to hide—including the human boy who loves Mac and the troubled werewolf who saves her life. 


  1. Great post, Kathleen!

    Janice, I've got something posted for you at my blog today.

  2. Thanks to Kathleen for coming by today and giving us some tips on writing real fake places.

    Paul: Thank you! How sweet :)

  3. Thanks Janice for posting this, and to Kathleen for sharing. My novel is set in an unamed town of the future. Just recently I realised that I pretty much haven't described anything at all so this couldn't have come at a better time :)

  4. These are really great tips. I like making up fictional towns because I can create it to be whatever I need for the story. Thanks for sharing!

  5. They say the devil is in the details, right? Thanks, Kathleen, for making it apparent that we need those details in order to make our settings real!

  6. Great post, especially the window dressing suggestions to make the town real. Thanks for the suggestions.

  7. Great post. My latest story involves a town that does not exist so your post could not have come at a better time. I really like the window dressing tips.

  8. Wow, this is really helpful. Great post!

  9. Great suggestions, Kathleen! I love how the world comes alive.

  10. Perfect timing, Kathleen! I am creating a town for my current WIP, and wondered if I was missing something that would make it feel real. Now I feel like I have a few things to measure it against.