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Cities in stories – bane of my existence.

I need to learn to love them. I really do. So many stories have cities and towns in them and I am simply negligent when it comes to their descriptions. They are a character which always lacks, whether its in a short or long, these locations simply do not speak to me.

This is a problem. It means I am a) being a lazy writer, and b) unable to breathe as much life into the stories as I would like to. I have some amazing, exciting, intriguing stories that are set at least half in cities, and until I break through this barrier and learn to write them well, I can’t do those stories justice.

What are some key things that might help? Is this just down to better planning, or world building in advance of starting to write the story? The city is vital to Delaney’s tale, and I need to nail it.

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11 thoughts on “Cities in stories – bane of my existence.”

  1. I think you’re emphasising the negatives of your perspective. Cities – more than other places – have people who don’t feel at home, or who are marginalised but almost part of the location itself and those who only benefit from the location but don’t love it and those who wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world and those who are very happy but only at a particular stage in their lives. It’s rare for someone to get all of them. It’s great you’ve identified this as a problem you need to work on, but at the same time see what your disconnect can bring to the story – it’s probably a really interesting perspective.

    The second thing I’d do is find something that you can connect to and start from there. I feel very much not at home in small towns, but when I set stories in them I tend to focus on (other than…um…people escaping or dying) rivers or lakes, because that’s something I do get, and then I build outwards from there. For me, with cities, I’m often drawn to (literal) underground cities or living spaces or networks. You could start with something like – I saw pictures of this huge awesome playground and I’d love to have resources like that to take the girls to, and then imagine who else is there and what you’d talk to them about, and before long the playground disappears and you’ve got a bunch of people talking about their lives and build environment. Or whatever…

    And the simple ones – Google Earth. Talking to people who love cities. What are their favourite parts, what resonates (people are usually very happy to go on about their travels)…

    1. Thanks, Anna. Some good ideas in there! I often find that I just don’t think about it, and then wonder why it’s so flat and it’s like I have a city, an empty city, with no people on the street, no lights on in the shops. It’s just kind of flat and dead. No wonder I find them hard to write 😉

  2. Central Sydney – “Georgian building facades learing over pedestrians” – just describe them like they are to you.

  3. Read some Sherlock Holmes – this is where every perception of Victorian London comes from (well, a lot anyway). Philip K Dick’s “Do Android’s dream of electric sheep?” for urban dystopia, Inspector Morse for Oxford, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay for 1930-40’s New York.
    Being a city-boy, I love big, bustly, crowded urban spaces, but, as Anna points out above, its about your character’s relationship with it.

    1. see, no-one populates my cities… haha, as I said in my reply to Anna, they are lifeless, which makes them flat. I will read those books, see what I can learn. Thanks, Richard.

  4. are you talking real cities or made-up ones? For your own work, I mean. Somehow, I always need to choose a city to have my plot set in, usually somewhere I’ve been and know quite well, but not always.

    Anw, I don’t think you’re lazy, I just think you focus on other elements. Maybe if you force it a connection will be made. Never know.

    Oh, and good luck with the self-publishing -it’s very exciting!

  5. I never bother with city design. I’ll picture the place in my head, build up ideas from the environment and culture, add in a couple of striking features. Then I pick the bits that tell you something about the city, and I’ll describe them in passing.

  6. Heh.

    I love designing the worlds my stories play in so I’m not sure I can give good advice here… but I’ll give it a try.

    + details of how it looks through your MC’s eyes. This is the main way the reader will connect to it. You can’t include too much detail either, because your MC lives there, doesn’t she? She would not notice day-to-day things. Have her notice changes, or random things that are always the same (like the guy with the sandwich board praising jesus who seems to be on that corner rain or shine)(maybe he sleeps there, too?)

    + if you write about a street or a building or anything specific, note it down. I make maps, but then I’m kind of weird that way. Just make sure you don’t move the bakery from one corner to another or anything like that. Readers ALWAYS notice that kind of thing.

    + if your MC moved there at some point, you can use flashbacks of what it was like to come into the city, what it felt like to be new there.

    Uhm….yea that’s it I think.

    Tessa.xx

    ps. I did a series on world building a while ago…you can find it on my blog if you’re interested

  7. Well, as Holly says, only write the extraordinary. You’ve had some great feedback. Sometimes cities do feel flat, and there’s no reason to make out like big cities are the greatest places in the world if you and your characters don’t feel that way.

    Nobody lives in a big city, anyway. Truth. People live in neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods are chic, or artsy, or dangerous, or have ethnicity, or sliding ethnicity, or lots of shops & restaurants or industry or parks & museums or bad air or bad policing. A city is not ONE world, it’s a bunch of worlds. Choose the one that does your story the most good–or evil–and have a blast with it.

    And congratulate yourself for finding a new muscle to exercise.

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