The Shining Ones · Writing

Tweaking Reality: How accurate should locations be in your novel?

Describing reality in words is a tricky business at the best of times, and in fiction especially so. Part of The Shining Ones is set in and around Newcastle where I live so I should have no excuse for getting the locations wrong. But it’s not that simple. Some of the locations weren’t quite right for the story, and that brought up a dilemma:

Do I switch locations and find somewhere more suitable, or do I change reality to match the story?

The question is really about whether a reader would be bothered by the change. Somebody familiar with Newcastle city centre might notice. There’s always a pedant lurking, waiting for the opportunity to point out – strenuously – where you’ve gone wrong. Details and facts that aren’t ‘true’ can pull a reader out of the story and undermine the credibility of the writer.

On the other hand, you’re not writing non-fiction. It’s not a guide book.

The reality in your story doesn’t have to be true, but it does have to be believable. It’s up to you to make the description so realistic that the reader doesn’t notice the change. But even if you do a good job of describing your fake version of reality, some readers can’t (or won’t) suspend their disbelief. What can you do?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How well-known is the location?
  • How big a change do you want to make?
  • How important is it to the story?

I’m not too worried about the changes I’ve made to some of the locations in my story. The Shining Ones is set in the near future in a society that’s collapsing, so I couldn’t stay true to reality as it is now anyway. Plus, it’s a fantasy novel.

I mean, if you’ve got a problem with angels disguising themselves as pigeons then perhaps you should stick to reading gritty realism. But if you’re okay with angels then don’t get your knickers in a twist over a slight deviation in geography.

Here’s some examples of my brazen disregard for reality and how I justified the use of my Artistic License.

Early in the process of writing the book, I included a scene at the police station on Pilgrim Street in the centre of Newcastle. Not long after that, it was closed and the police decamped to shiny new offices across town. Here’s the old building, Grade II listed and rather impressive (excuse my crappy photos):

The old police station on Pilgrim Street, Newcastle

And here’s the new one on Forth Banks. If it wasn’t for the big sign outside saying POLICE, you might think they were selling insurance:

The shiny new police station on Forth Banks, Newcastle

I debated whether to change the book to match reality and switch to the new station. But in the end, I stuck with the old one for two reasons:

  1. It looks like a proper police station – it’s even got blue lamps on it for goodness sake!
  2. It’s in the centre of town – the new station is hidden away behind the railway station where nobody goes. There’s nothing back there, except a bunch of student flats and posh offices. Stupid place for a police station, if you ask me.

The old police station now looks a bit forlorn and is currently in use as a convenient place to sleep by the local homeless population – which, as it turns out, is quite appropriate for my novel.

Note the cool blue lamps – SPOILER! They don’t survive intact in the novel…

Reality changed around me again with another part of the book. Without giving too much away, there’s a scene where two characters are on the run and they barrel through the centre of Newcastle trying to shake off their pursuers. I spent ages working it all out – walked the route, checked the angles, took photos.

Then they went and demolished almost an entire block in the middle of town, destroying my escape route in the process:

What’s left of my escape route – i.e. nothing…

Newcastle is constantly changing at the moment. You can’t move for building sites – mostly student flats – the one above is due to become a hotel (which is also what they knocked down).

Again, I stubbornly decided to stick with what I had. The description of the action is vivid and clear, but it’s not explicit on street names – at least, in part. The centre of Newcastle is criss-crossed by alleyways and side streets so it was easy to fudge my way around it. With my fingers crossed.

Next, I wilfully moved the oriental arch in China Town so I could block another escape route. The arch stands at the entrance to Stowell Street in Newcastle and is rather splendid:

Behold! The splendour of the oriental arch…

But it’s in the wrong place! I mean, it’s not even on Stowell Street – where China Town mostly is. The arch stands right next to the Irish Centre!

…beside the Irish Centre…

So I moved it. I needed it to be visible to characters standing on Stowell Street. In the novel, the arch now stands at the end of the street instead of round the corner, so you can see it from premises further down the road. The book doesn’t mention the street by name so I might have got away with it.

Stowell Street looking a bit dull without a massive oriental arch

This fudging of reality happens in movies and on TV all the time. Get Carter is a good example, where it jumps from Blyth Staithes to Blackhall Colliery, 35 miles away. And the infamous scene where Jack throws Brumby from the top of the Gateshead car park couldn’t happen now. The car park was demolished and turned into another Tesco, amongst other things.

One way to get around this problem is to rename locations that you want to change. Next time we’ll look into the whys and wherefores of renaming locations in your novel…

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4 thoughts on “Tweaking Reality: How accurate should locations be in your novel?

  1. There’s an easy out for fantasy novels. Just throw in a few references to ahistorical events (Kennedy miraculously survives the assassin’s bullet (angelic intervention?), Charles and Diana ascend to the throne in 1992 … that sort of thing). Then it’s clear you’re dealing with an alternative timeline so you can get away with all sorts of inaccuracies – including ones that might tap fears or wishes of your readers.

    Is that really a new police station?
    Are British architects big fans of 1950s Soviet buildings or something?

    Liked by 1 person

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