If you are an author who writes fantasy – talking bears, flying witches adept at airborne archery, you know the sort of thing – then setting scenes accurately is unlikely to concern you much. If nothing else is realistic, why would your locations be?
Moving on to those of us at ground level, decisions must be made. Starting with historical novelists, the approach will surely be researching what your chosen locations were like at the time your book is set. What was Naples like in1640 when your heroine, Artemisia, was active with oil on canvas? Not like the Naples we meet in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books, we can be sure of that. Recourse to libraries in person or online will be called for. I am not a historical novelist, but I’m sure they cover their bases as well as they can and if they make the occasional mistake it won’t be for want of trying to get it right.
For authors whose work is set in present times, or near enough, there are two ways to go. Knowing that you’re writing a work of fiction, you think to yourself I might as well make up the settings as well with an occasional nod to actuality. In Paris, a reference to the Eiffel Tower, in Edinburgh to the Castle, or Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Yes, that should cover it. But not everyone will be comfortable with that approach and here I can only speak for myself.
Three of my novels are set in Edinburgh, where I have lived for many years. Although I know the city well, I visited the sites which would figure in each book and took many photographs as an aid to memory. For example, Interleaved Lives.
Scenes set in Dublin and Traquair are supported by photographs. One location within the city is a disused church.
The references to this building are detailed and accurate, though changes may have occurred since I finished writing it.
But the fourth book, The Ears of a Cat, never comes near my native city, and instead visits Berlin, Los Angeles, Hokkaido and Charmouth (a coastal town in the English county of Dorset). Of these places, I have only ever set foot in Charmouth, so where does that leave me in search of accuracy?
Were it not for the internet, it would leave me up the creek without a paddle. Now, though, I can travel far and wide without leaving the house. A major aid here is Street View, which not only enables the armchair traveler to visit a given street on the map, it also enables that traveler to see all its buildings. And as if that were not enough, travelers who have actually been there are often kind enough to post photographs of their visit, a further source of reference. Without these aids, I could not have written the Berlin chapters of Ears. In one there is a reference to Leise Park and a gravestone there. The gravestone exists and the reference to the inscription is accurate. How amazing that such a thing is possible? When I was younger than I am today, it was not.
Click on the image for a tour of Leise Park.
(I felt the first edition of the Ears of a Cat was unsatisfactory in some respects. A revised edition will be published early in 2023).