Let’s wind up this month of maps by talking about failure.
First, my failure to calculate how many weekends there are in a month. Mea culpa.
Secondly, Arcadia – my unfinished novel of a small town dreamer adrift in a big city. I started writing this novel something like five years ago, and like most things I write I then proceeded very slowly through it in fits and starts. It was a tough write, due to its first-person narrator having a very specific voice and a mindset very different to my own; I had to really work hard to evoke the story in a way that felt compelling and honest to the protagonist. Even I found myself exhausted by it, and I put it to one side for a little while and wrote something else as a way of clearing my head; that turned out to be The Obituarist, and from there I segued (in the usual fits and starts) to Raven’s Blood, and Arcadia gathers electron dust in a corner of my hard drive, waiting to be dug out and started again.
I think that will happen. It’s a story worth telling. I hope that one day I have the stamina and the will to finish it.
Anyway, Arcadia is very much a story about place and about perceptions of place. So do I have a map for it? I sure do:
Writing about real places
As the map suggests, Arcadia is set in Melbourne, unlike all the makey-uppy places all my other stories and projects have explored. It’s possible to set a story someplace real but then just skate over the details, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but suppose you want to go deeper. How do you go about exploring a real place through prose? There’s no right or wrong answer – or rather, there are probably lots of right and wrong answers, and every writer works them out for themselves.
I think a better question is why you might choose to do that. What’s the benefit of embedding a story firmly within a real location? Verisimilitude is one obvious answer; using a real place gives you a wealth of maps, photos, history and more to work into your story and make it feel real. But are there others? For me, the attraction is depicting the immaterial character of the place, to show the themes and tone that a city/town embodies, the vibe that those who live there feel every day. Melbourne got under my skin as soon as I visited it; it’s a beautiful city that generates and supports art, culture and history, but it can also be an ugly place of violence, crime, poverty and worse. Those conflicting elements feel like genuine themes to me – as if the city was a fiction made manifest – so I set stories here not just to explore those themes but to explore the idea that a real place can have themes; that the bones of story might underpin the skin and flesh of the world.
Yes, that’s a bit wanky. Surely this comes as no surprise.
How characters engage with place
The flip side of talking about how writers engage with place is talking about how characters engage with it. Do they set out to explore their world or do they take it for granted? Do they think about the nature of their home and deliberately interact with its themes, or is it all done by accident? Do they have any interest in where they live, or where they’ll live in the future, or where they lived in the past? It’s okay if the answer is ‘no’; most of us get through every day with only the barest of nods to our local geography, and when stuff is going down in the plot then characters may have more important things to worry about. But on the other hand, there’s narrative potential in thinking about this.
A big part of the challenge of Arcadia was getting to grips with how my main character, Gwen, engaged with Melbourne. Raised in the country by a mother devoted to fantasy stories and her own rich internal fantasy life, Gwen thinks of Melbourne as a literal fantasyland – as Arcadia. Or more precisely, she wants to think of it that way; she wants to live in a fantasy world, rather than a world of disappointments and failures, and she tries throughout the novel (so far) to push as far into that world as her imagination will allow.
Similarly, maps matter to Gwen, if only because they matter in fantasy novels; they’re like artefacts intruding from the world of fiction into the real. When she gets her hands on a Melways street directory, she feels like it’s the key to all the stories, all the secrets of Neverland in one book – and when she reads it it’s with one eye in the Land of Dreams and one looking for a train station. It’s complicated to describe and harder to write, but it’s very much an attempt to create a story not just where place matters, but where what we think about geography matters. Like I said, I hope someday I can pull it off.
You don’t have to go to that extreme in your own work, but if you’re looking for a way to flesh out a character, thinking about how they think about their physical space is one way to go
Narrator navigation 101
You might also consider thinking about how they work out where they’re going in that space. Street directory? Ancient map? Google Maps? Apple Maps (poor fools)? Asking others for directions?
It’s a minor thing, but maybe think about how your characters get from A to B and how they determine where those letters are in the first place. Even if it never becomes plot-relevant – even if you never state it in the narrative – it can inform your portrayal of the character. And if you do give it some air – if you devote words to how they interact with their holy map around heretics, how they rely on their smartphone and get lost when it dies, how they steal a Melways from a service station despite it being out of what they thought was their moral nature – then you’ve got another lane of story to explore.
And with that, I’m going to stop talking about maps and place for a while. These essays have helped me crystallise some ideas that I’ve been contemplating for a while; I hope some of you found them useful too. If you did, please leave a comment to say so; if you didn’t, then just leave a comment and lie. Lying has merit too.
Next weekend I’ll be at GenreCon in Brisbane, attending workshops and panels, chairing a panel about hybrid genres, catching up with old friends and probably getting very drunk with Chuck Wendig. Say hi if you’re there and run into me! I’ll file a post-con report afterwards, if I can remember what went down and if any of the photos are SFW.
That Wendig is a sexy beast, after all.