Rachel Saunders's picture
Rachel Saunders from York, UK is reading Lots of factual stuff for ideas March 9, 2013 - 5:58pm

I was chewing this idea over in my head for the last few weeks, as to me it is rather crucial to my work that my cities and towns make sense in the minds eyes. As a sci-fi writer I am always very careful to postulate urban environments that make sense, both literally and visually, as it can be very easy to make a setting off kilter with the wrong layout/setting for a story.

I must admit that I am a very visual person, and my writing reflects this, so when I see/read about a city that does not make sense, it does take me out of the story. My biggest peeve with speculative/fantasy/sci-fi is how homogenous most writers make their cities. Honestly, you look at urban planning for most modern cities, and unless a tactical nuclear device/the Luftwaffe/nature disaster has wiped the slate clean, you are going to have a panalopy of buildings from across the centuries nestling up against each other. In light of this, it is worth taking the time to have a rough mind map of the sort of city you want to portray, especially if it is a make believe location. 

Why is this so important? For me it is because a living city, or even a dead one with a few centuries worth of history, will have a tapestry that is rich and dynamic. I was reading an urban planning guide to London that explained the reasoning behind the current planning laws, and specifically relating to the sight lights of the famous monuments. Just today I saw a piece of art that showed London 200 years from now with buildings that broke all the planning rules, and while I could empathise with the artist's intend, they clearly had no appreciation for the tapestry of the city they were drawing. From a writing point of view, something as complex as urban planning is not worth getting your knickers in a twist over, but at the same time making a city come to life from the page is worth taking the time over.

My common refrain for dealing with this is to start with the idea of cultural history, as why a civilization has built the way it has, and then look at the underlying forces behind the fabric of a city. Paris is a great example of this, and is probably the simplest to get your head around. The city has a monotone for the inner city, which is punctuated by newer buildings as the need has arisen. For a write this is perfect, as you can evoke Paris in a few lines with little need to delve into the complexity. New York would appear to be the same, yet for all the avenues of skyscrapers, you have areas like the Meat Packing district, the Upper Eastside, and the Battery. Each has their own character and flavour, which means for a writer having to delve into the swirling mix to evoke the right atmosphere for the city. When you write about a speculative city or location, you have many choices, from the simplicity of Paris to the complexity of London, where giving the reader a flavour of the culture and architecture can draw them in deeper into your world.

In the end knowing how to make a city is not just about making an identikit location, rather it is about appreciating the history and culture behind it. Just as simply saying New York is skyscrapers, London is Big Ben/Westminster, and Paris is all Hausman grandiosity are to loose the essence of what those cities mean, so I believe must you break away from the simplicity of the monochrome and homogenous cities that so often populate speculative fiction. By making a city rich in flavour, obey some semblance of urban planning, and injecting a notion of heritage to your setting, you will be able to make the reader more fully believe in what you are writing. That for me is why I love writing about fictional cities glimpsed in the minds eye, as I am able to conjure up the richness of those cultures through the locations the locals inhabit/

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 12, 2013 - 3:21am

English cities are much older, and the core of cities in the eastern U.S. are fairly old as well. But in many, like the town I live in, huge parts were farm land 5 or ten years ago. The new buildings going up all sort of look the same to the point that I have to stop and think about what part of town I'm in. Throw in older subdivisions from 50 years ago that all still look the same and a lot of folks see a trend of things looking more and more alike. They have a point, even if they take it too far in their writing.

You are probably right that in the year 2200 it will look different with current buildings bumping against 2060 buildings, 2130s parks, and brand new ones but the idea that all this stuff will keep looking the same is in their heads.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig March 12, 2013 - 2:52pm

You know, I read about SF/F writers doing world building and it makes me want to crawl into a hole. I dabble in sci-fi but I always make it more near future type stuff, in part because that's just how the story happens, but also because, truth be told, world building scares the bejesus out of me. 

I was privy to some discussion on another writer's process of world building, and it appears to me, to do it well, you basically have to write out a whole history, an epic yarn, etc. to even begin. Like you said, the history, the culture, do they still use microwaves? Are the cars really awesome futuristic things, or do they have such little need for cars that there hasn't been too much change? And on and on and on. It's insanity. 

But it's awesome, and I think it is really cool to get a peek behind the curtain when writers who do this share their reasoning and process.

fport's picture
fport from Canada is reading The World Until Yesterday - Jared Diamond March 12, 2013 - 3:10pm

The context of Eifelheim was fascinating. Way future looking at way past. Mankind doesn't keep track over two generations for the most part with 50 years causing enormous holes in continuity.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 12, 2013 - 3:13pm

@Renee - Would the real question be, "Do they use something they call a microwave?"

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig March 12, 2013 - 3:16pm

Well, you've got me there. Another example of why I haven't attempted this in my own work, ha.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 12, 2013 - 3:31pm

Well there is no wrong answer, just be awesome.

fport's picture
fport from Canada is reading The World Until Yesterday - Jared Diamond March 12, 2013 - 11:52pm

One of the things I recalled about city growth was from London as it encroached on itself so much that a couple of merchants went together and bought a building which they then demolished to create a thoroughfare to the street where their establishments were located.

As for civilization, two horses abreast is the measure for train tracks and roadbeds. Standardization of transportation led to street widths which led to reconstruction or establishment of new areas to accomodate commerce cheaply and efficiently. It's amazing how many of our standards are holdouts of the past or the first method to build to create a way of measurement.

Worldbuilding is looking at the assumptions around us in a new light. Brasilia is the largest city in the world that didn't exist before the 20th century. It was based on a utopian plan and located in the centre of the country. Then there is Versailles a place created to harness the French nobles and solidify the power of the Royal Family.