I love my town. A great heartbreak for me over the last few pandemic years has been how everything wonderful about Melbourne became a negative – the dining and theatre, the big crowd events, the intimate venues. It’s such a relief to see her returning to some of her old self, even while I wait to see what changes have been wrought in her fabric by everything she and we have been through.
I love my chosen city so much that, when I set stories here, I try to include her as a kind of supporting character. Melbourne is not an interchangeable city in the stories I set in her. I want readers to know where they are, and to experience some of her richness, and get to know the good and bad of her.
This often means opening an ‘insider’ door on aspects of the city and how her character is expressed from suburb to suburb. I write a lot of my own impressions and feelings about the city, but I also try to include the sorts of things Melburnians in general also love and hate. It’s part of worldbuilding, because while it’s a world I know well, it’s also a world I want to introduce others to.
If you’re writing a story set in your home town – or an adopted town that you adore – you can help to make the setting a “supporting character” by exploring the different textures and aspects of the city and expressing its personality by how your characters react to it.
As always, you want to balance how you approach this. Try to find plot- and character-driven reasons to explore those aspects. Your characters don’t all have to feel the same way about the same places: to me the Melbourne Cricket Ground is just a big sports arena; to other, it’s a sporting Mecca, and hallowed ground.
I was recently in Adelaide and went on a delightful and unusual food tour: The F Factor, where host Katina guided the group through a nostalgic journey of Adelaidian specialities.
Very different to the usual gourmet food and wine tours, The F Factor introduces visitors to the local staples for anyone growing up in Adelaide: Haighs Chocolates and Charlesworth Nuts; Fruchocs and Balfours Green Frog Cakes; fritz (pressed luncheon meat) and pies at the Adelaide Central Markets.
This tour was a reminder that, when writing about any city, you can add authenticity by researching its comfort foods and hometown idiosynracies.
Spend some time thinking about what might represent your home town on a tour like that. And if you want to set a story in a different city (for me, London is another frequent story setting) spend some time exploring its suburb- and interest-specific peculiarities as too. (My London includes the Wellcome Museum, days in the British Library, my love of Pret, and the history of Frost Fairs.)
And if you’re writing about a place where you’re not a local? See if you can find someone familiar with that town who is willing to read your manuscript and offer advice about how to make it more authentic.
With large cities, there can be as many ‘cities’ as their are people in it. My Melbourne (and my London) may not be yours, but I can express what they are to me, and what they are to my characters, as part of building their world and adding colour and texture to a story’s sense of place.