Where the Roads Go: Tips for Creating True-to-Life Settings in Fiction

I like writing about places almost as much as I like visiting them. For much of my career, I worked in the travel industry as a writer and editor. For almost fourteen years, I wrote articles, reviews, and marketing content for and about destinations around the world. Over time, using words to illustrate the characters of historic cities, seaside villages, and sweeping natural landscapes became almost second nature to me.

When it comes to writing about places in fiction, there’s a lot of good advice out there. The majority of what you find online is both practical and useful, such as the importance of basing fictional places on actual ones to make them feel believable. Not writing about real places unless you know something about them, either through research or from personal experience, is another good tip.

Pointers like these can help writers create settings that feel real enough, but I think there are some things fiction writers can learn from writers in the travel industry. Below are a couple of techniques I’ve used, both in my career as a travel writer and as a novelist, that have helped me make the places I write about feel vibrant and tangible.

Remember that places are dynamic. Depending on the weather, the time of year, and the actions of storms, people, and wildlife, a particular location can sometimes be unrecognizable from one day to the next.

It wasn’t until I started hiking that I began paying attention to the ways places constantly change. A trail I’ve used a dozen times can occasionally feel like someplace I’ve never been depending on variables like vegetation, snow cover, leaf litter, or even the time of day. To help orient myself, I started making mental lists of the changes I noticed in the forests and mountains I regularly visit.

Eventually, I started doing this everywhere I went. I began spotting things I hadn’t noticed before, like architectural details on buildings and decorations on storm drain covers. Doing this also helped me gain a better understanding of the ways that conditions in various locations tend to evolve over time, such as the characteristics roadside snowbanks take on after the temperature has been above freezing for a day or two, or the crystalline patterns ice makes when it begins to form on moving water.

Using a few carefully chosen details like these can mean the difference between creating settings that feel authentic and ones that readers won’t soon be able to forget.

Know where the roads go. Horror writer Stephen King is credited with saying, “A place is yours when you know where all the roads go.” Good travel writing explores “where the roads go” in interesting places and shares the experience of discovery with readers. Some of the best travel writing goes even further, introducing readers to little-known places through the eyes of locals who are intimately familiar with them.

When adapting this idea to use in fiction, I’ve found it easiest to break it into two concepts. The first is that the more familiar a character is with the hidden aspects of a place, whether it’s a building, a city, or a region of the country where they live, the more animated the location itself will begin to feel.

The second, which is closely related, is having an intimate understanding of the settings where important experiences have taken place in characters’ lives and what meaning those places hold for them as individuals. In her 2015 guide to writing about places, The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook — Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci, author Linda Lappin refers to this idea as “genius loci” or “personal geography.”

Even if you’ve never heard of it, personal geography is most likely a concept with which you’re familiar. For example, someone who got into a car accident on particular road might have a very different view of it than a person who uses it to commute to work every day, or someone who only drives on it occasionally.

Describing fictional settings through the lens of a character’s heart and mind helps infuse them with meaning and mood, making the places in your stories feel more intimate and dynamic to readers.

Have you read a story where a character’s personal geography affects the way the story’s setting is perceived? Have you written one?

David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars offers a good example of a dynamic fictional setting that feels real. Can you think of any others?

What are some of the ways the landscape changes from week to week or month to month where you live?