“Top Ten Tuesday” is a feature started by “The Broke and the Bookish”, though now hosted by some artsy reader girl in which people list their top ten books that match some given criterion. It changes every week, and happens on a Tuesday. Lots (a frankly ridiculous number) of bloggers take part.
This week, the theme is “books that take place in another country”. The vast majority of books I read take place in other countries, and often other worlds, so that seemed a little too easy. Instead, I’m listing fictional real places. These are places that have been inserted seamlessly into the real world – places that might exist, as long as nobody actually goes and looks.
Characters have to come from somewhere and do things somewhere, and that presents a problem. You can either use a real place, which might put you in conflict with reality (they can’t climb the clock tower if it burnt down four years ago, or was never built) or you can use a fictional place at the cost of realism. No one minds if your hero climbs a clock tower in Sun-Pha, the third largest city on Venus, but it is going to make your legal thriller seem a little less true-crime.
There is a third way. Authors can just make up places and slot them into the real world, redrawing borders and expanding the globe with a stroke of the pen. When they need a bustling city or quiet fishing village, they created it from thin air, and then blended the edges well enough that it was hard to tell where reality ended and fiction began.
There are loads of these as well, but I’ve only picked fleshed-out ones: places that are significant and well-described enough to feel real and to need significant skill to blend in. Due to the fact that such places are hard to find, I am again taking advantage of the list being “up to” rather than “at least”. My top ten is actually a top seven, and is in no particular order.
1. Ruritania – Anthony Hope
Ruritania is a monarchy in central Europe. It also isn’t real. Back before radios and the internet, when the world was bigger, Europe was mostly just a vast forest with France at one end and Italy at the bottom. Countless countries could exist in the middle, and if you were an author in need to a highly-specific situation, you could simply invent a country that happened to feature it. No one was going to go check.
The Prisoner of Zenda, the first novel set in the fictional micro-state, sparked so many imitators and references that Ruritania probably has more cultural significance than several real countries. Now we have up-to-date maps of Europe and the ability to travel quickly, we can’t have Ruritania or its ilk any more. Countless tiny states with countless dispossessed princesses and travelling potentates was a beautiful dream that has now ended. The inevitable march of progress has claimed another victim.
2. Pemberley – Jane Austen
Regency fiction must be grounded in places. So much of it is about whose estates are entailed and how many thousand a year the Lady B_____ has. Estates need to exist, and they need to be visible – where else can you send a feckless younger son to rusticate, or fall slowly in love with the shy-but-beautiful governess to your wild French ward?
At the same time though, writing from within that society, you absolutely don’t want to cause a scandal. So you can’t set it anywhere real, or you might offend people and destroy reputations. If you talk about the squire of Market Weighton as a foolish vulgar idiot, that will offend the actual squire. If you say his daughter ran off with a soldier, her marriage might not happen.
Pemberley is one of Austen’s many places that can’t be pinned down on a map. It’s about five miles away from Lambton, but Lambton isn’t real either. Despite an awful lot happening there in a place that’s very clearly described, no one can get offended or ruined.
3. Barchester, Barsetshire – Anthony Trollope
It took me ages to get round to reading Trollope, because I had unreasonably assumed it was boring. That was wrong of me. Trollope wrote social satire, and he did it very well. As a satirist, it’s important that you don’t stick too closely to the real world, as that’s just libel. You need to make fun of pretensions and foolishness without directly calling the Archdeacon an idiot.
Barchester, and the county of Barsetshire in which it is found, give that critical distance. If the Archdeacon objects, you can say that you’re just writing light-hearted fictional stories about a different, imaginary Archdeacon.
4. Derry, Maine – Stephen King
If everything that Stephen King writes is real, then there is a clear moral imperative to destroy the entirety of Maine with fire. Maine is thronged with evil, ranging from sadistic killers to fear-eaters that exist outside of space and time. I could have picked any one of his fictional towns, but Derry is the one I was first afraid of.
Derry is meticulously described and detailed. It’s been years since I read It, but I could probably point out key places in the novel, if I went there. Except I couldn’t, because Derry isn’t real, and we should all be very, very glad of that.
5. Arkham, Massachusetts – H. P. Lovecraft
This is another place that we should be happy is not real. It’s not that there’s anything particularly bad about Arkham itself, but the existence of Arkham implies the existence of all sorts of other, more terrible things. Arkham is the starting point for investigations that go horribly wrong. It’s the place you go to check out a book that was mentioned once in the footnotes of an article about cult activity. It’s where the letter was postmarked – the letter that told you of an old friend’s dying words. No matter what the connection to Arkham is, the town and its university contain knowledge of truths that human minds cannot conceive of. Nothing good ever comes from visiting Arkham and learning its secrets.
6. Wessex – Thomas Hardy
If you are going to write about the seamy underbelly of society, it’s important to do so without committing libel or ruining lives. Hardy wrote about alcoholism, infidelity, and abject despair; not much of his work is happy at all. Wessex fits rather neatly over the South-West of England because it is the South-West of England, but in disguise. All the place names change, but it’s still mostly recognisable. Hardy gets to keep his realism but avoid upsetting everyone more than his subject matter should.
7. Bredon Hall, Norfolk – Dorothy L. Sayers
Bredon Hall, in Duke’s Denver, is the ancestral seat of the Wimsey family. Should you wish to learn more about the Wimsey family, then I would suggest the rabbit hole of wiki articles which have collected every possible scrap of information necessary to construct a fictional family history going back to the Norman conquest. The publication of this article was delayed while I got lost in it myself.
Bredon Hall and Duke’s Denver both exist, to the extent that they exist at all, in Norfolk. Bredon Hall and its surroundings are meticulously described, as is often necessary when investigating a murder. I am reasonably certain that if I was to visit, I’d be able to navigate without a map. I am regrettably also certain that I can never visit.