Writing Excuses 7.8: The City as a Character

Mary and Dan discuss using a city as a character with Sarah Pinborough, for whom London is an important setting and one of her favorite places. We talk about the importance of being accurate, and how a city isn’t just the buildings and the history, it’s also the attitudes of the people who live there. Sarah gives us lots (and lots and lots) of insight into how she wrote London into her books, what she did right, and what (per her admission) she got wrong.

Dan and Mary also give us some peeks into what they’ve done with Clayton (completely fictional) and Nashville (adjusted via authorial arson) in their own books.


Take a city to which you have been, and set a chase scene there.

The Terror, by Dan Simmons, narrated by Simon Vance

20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.8: The City as a Character”

  1. No Brandon for the city-character discussion? I’m surprised. He does a surprisingly good job of that for cities that not only don’t exist, they cannot exist.

    Nevertheless, an excellent podcast, as usual.

  2. Wow, not one, but two Stephen King references! I’ve always wondered why the most successful genre writer never seems to get mentioned in these podcasts.

  3. An excellent resource for writers who are interested in the city as character are the works of Peter Ackroyd, specifically London: The Biography and Venice: Pure City. While you’ll get lots of good historical tidbits from the books, more importantly, Ackroyd captures the character and mood(s) of the two cities. Highly recommended for writers whether you’re considering writing about either of those cities or not. He really brings up a lot of interesting things to consider (especially in the London) book when using an urban setting, everything from waste disposal to transportation to weather to the mood on the streets to the character of various neighborhoods. I wouldn’t solely rely on those books for historical research, but in terms of thinking about cities and what they represent and how they develop and their unique contours and character, they’re excellent.

    With fiction, I’d say that Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which features a mythic New York, was the first book I remember reading where it really hit me that the city can be a character in a novel.

  4. Hey, cool episode! I love it when the extra little details make books feel so real.
    By the way, I was wondering what is up with the search feature. Every time I search something the archive for season six pops up… that isn’t supposed to happen, is it?

  5. Dynamite podcast as always – and I also loved the Stephen King references. Never really thought of a city before as a character until now. Sarah did a great job of willing in for Brandon and Howard – would like to get their take on this from them in a future podcast.

    Could this be transcended into other settings as well? A house, perhaps? Hmmm . . . .

    I’m sure this was covered in another podcast, but did Dan realize he mentioned the actual state where Clayton is in the third book? Just finished the John Cleaver books too – loved them!

  6. I like to know that other people are writing with google maps open, because I often find myself reading with it open, it makes some books feel that much more real, and others feel that much more removed from reality.

  7. I don’t know if I’m the only experiencing this problem, but the audio on the last few episodes fades in and out and they are difficult to hear consistently. Other than that, I love your podcast and recommend it to anyone who will listen to me!

  8. I second the Peter Ackroyd recs – I’ve read London – a Biography, which is marvelous (and a delightful read), but I hadn’t read the one on Venice, and Amazon lists one he’s done about underground London, so I’ve just ordered both of them.

    I think my favorite fictional city is Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, not just for the humor, but because it’s a city that works. I don’t know of many other authors who go into such detail about sewers or the night soil collectors, and all those tiny details that say volumes about social structures and economic conditions.

    Great fun – glad I’m not the only one who gets lost on Google Maps.

  9. I sometimes sit in Google maps, dial down to street view on a random city, and just go for a virtual drive. I just wish it refreshed a bit faster. Google maps and street view has completely changed how I research areas. You really have very few excuses to get it wrong. You can, quite literally, take a virtual stroll down just about every street right from your couch these days.

  10. I just wanted to let Sarah know something about the O2 Center. If I heard correctly, she said something about her characters not really being able to escape the O2 Center by boat. Well, I was a VIP at a rock concert there once, and we were shuttled there by boat (it docked within a stone’s throw of the arena). If I’d read her story, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye at that detail.

  11. This reminds me of the Millennium Falcon or the Serenity from Firefly. Inanimate objects that took on lives of their own, becoming their own characters.

    I would like to have heard a little more about technique. How do you get the city to be its own character?

    I think anthropomorphism is useful, describing the city as a living organism, ascribing motivation or sentience to its processes. Also, if the city is a character, should it have its own motivation? Its own arc?

  12. The City and The Stars, The Caves of Steel, Foundation (Trantor and Terminus?), Simon Green’s Nightside… lots of good cities out there (and bad). There are 8 million stories in the naked city…

    Anyway, here’s a transcript. My apologies for inaccuracies — the sound level was unfortunately low. Please do feel free to let me know about needed corrections!


  13. Just a comment on the audiobook recommendation: I’ve read The Terror, and it is both meticulously researched and a book with a horror element. There’s no city here, but the location is perhaps the most important character in the book. A great recommendation for learning about place as character!

  14. As usual, it was a very informative podcast. However, the audio was terrible! I cranked the volume up to hear Sarah, then got my ear drums blasted out whenever everyone laughed. Jordo, please google “Normalize Volume.”

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