How To Convey an Urban Sense of Place in Fiction Writing

University made me a map geek

Matt Mason

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I have always had a good head for maps and easily remember routes and work out ways of getting around places even when in an unfamiliar place near to places I know. This wasn’t always the case — I honestly think that studying the archaeology and history of landscapes changed how I see the world as a giant interconnected, mostly organic network.

Photo by Iga Palacz on Unsplash

I did one undergraduate module on medieval buildings — part of which included urbanism. Subsequently, my postgraduate education in landscape archaeology allowed me to take this further. In the end, my postgraduate dissertation was on urban development of a medieval town in Oxfordshire.

Since my studies on urbanism, I’ve become far more aware of the landscape around us from an archaeological and geographical perspective — how it came to be, how it might look in the future and why any parts of a relict landscape might look the way it does.

Compliments I received for Phobetor’s Children (a scifi horror set during the Roman Empire) centred on how vivid a world I’d created. Particularly, some beta readers commented on how rich the urban descriptions were — the two cities featuring being Rome and Mogontiacum (modern day Mainz in Germany).

A sense of place is not all that important for contemporary stuff but it’s vital in speculative — science fiction, fantasy (even urban fantasy requires some) as a world building device.

The hardest part of your urban sense of place

Urban spaces in speculative fiction exist solely in the writer’s mind because either they no longer exist in the real world (hist fic) or they are purely the invention of the author’s imagination and, in all likelihood, will never be realised.

This is not an easy task — essentially, your job is to make it feel appropriately busy and organic — create the right feel without overwhelming the reader with minutiae of detail about how every street looks, the type of materials used in buildings, what type of people they’ll experience in every street, how a marketplace and roads function, what windows look like, the architectural style… it’s easy to write too much of this.

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Matt Mason

Freelance writer. Medium is my place to muse and vent the serious and the frivolous: asexuality, childfree living, gaming, society, satire and more.