In April 2009, I was walking through Dublin with my son. It was a busy day, even though it was midweek and I was scouting out some places where I wanted to set scenes from the novel on which I was working at the time.
I was half way down South William Street when I saw the angel.
It was graffiti, just in case anyone fears I’m losing it. But that line, or a form of it, made it into my novel A Crack in Everything and so did that angel. First as graffiti, then as something much more.
One thing I love as a writer is to take familiar places and discover their strangeness. I love investigating the real world settings I often use in my stories and getting a solid, visceral feel for the place. When these places are close and easy to visit, it’s simple enough. When they’re far away, other means of research might come into play. When they are some distance away but still within reach, they require a roadtrip (or flight) and me dragging my ever suffering family along behind me.
Like the time we walked the Ridgeway from the Uffington White Horse to Wayland’s Smithy on a hot summer’s day, retracing the steps of Jack in The Treachery of Beautiful Things. All to find out if there was a gate. Spoiler: there was. I have a photo of my husband behind it going “oh look, there is a gate.”
Climbing Killiney Hill is something I have done all my life. It’s more of a stroll than a climb these days and I tend to use the paths. But we’ve still had incidents of me phoning the same suffering husband while he was up there and I was home writing, to get him to describe the rocks and stones near the Obelisk.
Why? Do I like to torment people?
Well I am a writer. So fictional people (and not-so-fictional, says my husband).
When you take details of real world settings and filter them into your writing something really magical seems to happen. The world on paper becomes 3D in the reader’s mind. The colour and texture of tiles in a bathroom, the feeling of walking from darkness into sunlight, the smell of lavender fields in Provence. When you can nail those details down to something you yourself have experienced, the effect is even more convincing. Place and setting as another character in fiction. They aren’t chosen haphazardly, even if it sometimes feels like that, because they work on the characters in the story. Characters come from somewhere, are moulded by the world around them. They live and interact in your setting.
Perhaps it’s a trick. You could call it that. Or more nicely, a technique. Those little details of the real world help to make the fantasy world more real to the reader. If there is a gate to Wayland’s Smithy, then why should the barrow itself not be magical? Or in contemporary fiction – if there is a bench at that point in the park could two lovers not have sat there and watched children playing. It is especially true in Historical fiction, where a mistake in a historical detail could pull the reader out of the story altogether and make it laughable.
Accurate details bring stories to life. We can find them with research, with online facilities like Google Street View (you can’t see the gate as it isn’t a road, but you can still see the angel, even though she’s long gone in reality). We can ask friends and family who live nearby, or twitter. We can go to the library and look up travel books, or build up a collection of relevant ones ourselves. You may need to track down a specialist library or archives collection but a polite email with specific detailed questions can yield a great deal of help. And build this research into your life. Every holiday I go on ends up with some sort of trip with an eye to future books, even if I don’t have something specific to research (oh my poor family).
Of course, it’s important to know when to stop as well. Know when to let the characters take off in their world. Keep the plot moving forward. Avoid info-dumping, where all your meticulous research is crammed into dense, impenetrable prose guaranteed to send the reader to sleep. Filter it through, one detail at a time where and when it is relevant to the story.
Every day, we can find little details in the world around us—in the city or the countryside—that can aid us in writing stories which feel immediate and real.
(c) Ruth Long
A Crack in Everything is in books shops now or pick up your copy online here.
About A Crack in Everything
She was a mistake. A crack in the order of the world …
When Izzy Gregory takes a wrong turn down a Dublin alley she stumbles into a shadowy, frightening world where magical beings, angels and demons hold sway. In this place where everything is strange, Izzy finds herself surrounded by danger, chased and threatened. Her only chance of survival lies with Jinx, who’s been sent to capture her. Jinx has known nothing but duty and cruelty from his own kind; Izzy is something altogether new to him – and to his world …
Falling in love was never in the plan, but it might be the one thing that can save them.
Ruth Frances Long writes young adult fantasy such as The Treachery of Beautiful Things (Dial, 2012) and A Crack in Everything (O’Brien Press, September 2014), the first in a trilogy set in the world of demons, angels and fairies that exists alongside our own in modern day Dublin. As R. F. Long she writes fantasy & paranormal romance such as The Scroll Thief (Samhain, 2009) and The Mirror of her Power (Taliesin, 2014). She lives in Ireland and works in a library of rare, unusual & occasionally crazy books.