Location, Location, Location

Short story workshop, post 6 (I think.)

Hello, workshopers. I bring you news of great joy.

You don’t have to be good at everything.

This is true even for novels. I once spent some time tallying the talents that could make you a bestseller. I grant you this study was skewed because at the time to sell at all you had to go via the gatekeepers and – by the time I came along – to be a bestseller, ditto.

Now that things are different, let’s put it this way: you can be a writer with a wide variety of following, and a mass of it, and yet only be good at an aspect of writing, like, say, characters, and be passable at the others, (off the top of my head, location, evoking a time/place and/or language) and totally drawers at another (for character writers that’s usually plot.) You can field a character so achingly alive that people will blink at the three-page climax and the way the villain folds like papier mache and say “ookay, that’s not what I expected” but they won’t in fact hold it against you. Or at least they’ll buy the next one.

Of all the talents, btw, the one I find least likely to bring you a wide following and rent money is language. Oh, sure, you say, but Bradbury. Yeah, but Bradbury was very much the exception and the literary road is littered with the corpses of those who would follow him.

However, part of Bradbury’s success is that he worked mostly in short stories. Even his novels had a certain episodic quality.

And – this is where the news of great joy come in – short stories need only one characteristic to lift them out of the ordinary and make them special. That characteristic can be a talent of yours. (I get language for free, pretty much.) Or it can be one of the elements of the story.

What I mean is if you’re good at character, in a short story you can just let your character run free (shouting whoo-hoo is optional) and not worry too much about plot (though even in a short story it’s a good idea to give it sort of a polite wave. Story is, to an extent, plot.)

And what if you have no character, no plot, and not really any language, but you have this location that fascinates you.

Look, you can do it. Given an unusual enough, interesting enough location, you can sell that story to the reader.

There are some things you need to remember, though:

-The location should be fascinating. If it’s going to carry the whole weight of the story, a location needs to do more work than “Nice place you’ve got there. Shame if a story were to happen to it.”

– It can’t be overdone and it can’t be totally unfamiliar. Yeah, okay, I bought the first mystery set in New Orleans’ Jazz scene, because it was unknown enough, but I knew it existed. However, the second didn’t impress me as well, because I already knew the location, and the second series had nothing else. Etc. I suspect some locations which are dream-aims of many people can be overdone and still sell. Hollywood, say. Or other such rich-and-famous locations.


-There has to be a problem, and, if location is your strongest appeal, it should inhere in the location. Say, you could write about Albania and their peculiar custom of making their daughters into a cross between sons and vestal virgins for the purpose of pursuing a blood feud in the absence of (living) sons. (Eh gods, and now I have a short story with that location/setup, in which the guy becomes a zombie to save his sister that fate. Ack. This I don’t need.) The problem can also be part of what the location IS, not just its customs, although those are inscrutably linked, often. For instance, I image a floating city would have different traffic and pedestrian regulations. At the same time, a floating city that loses power could make a great setting for a story, right? Or say a world where humans have to live underground because the surface is uninhabitable can be a serious issue. Serious enough that a trip to the top can be a whole story.


A good example of location story is Cold Equations. Yes, I know, most ships have more give. But suppose they didn’t. Suppose the cold equations really worked as set out. Now you see, the whole story comes from the location.

Oh, sure, he did what he could to make the characters sympathetic, particularly the girl, with the story of the cat. BUT the problem and the tension come from the location and he sold us on the location problem VERY well.

Go forth and do likewise.

Next week “An Embarrassing Little Problem.”

29 thoughts on “Location, Location, Location

  1. Trying to come up with stories where the location was paramount . . . I once had a passion for WWII stories and read a lot of submarine based books. I loved the day to day challenges presented, on top of the battles. Oh, how about the Poseidon Adventure? Novel, not short story, but the challenge of escaping when _everything_ was upside down fascinated me. I had the worse time trying to picture the stairs. And a recent read of mine, The Martian. But while a big chunk of those stories were about the place and the limitations and challenges it imposed, it is always the characters overcoming the limitations that made the story.

    Hmm, now I’m going to have to think about how to use location.

  2. OK, admittedly wandering off into the weeds here.

    During the short period when I lived in Chattanooga, I was looking at local maps, and discovered a nearby body of water named “Stone Cipher Lake”. I never could find out why it was called that.
    Odder still, the reasons and stories about how and why nearly everything else in the area were named were well and widely known.
    But whenever I asked about the evocative Stone Cipher Lake, I just got a blank, glazed expression and a level of incomprehension that it could ever be called anything else.

    Sure, it’s great material for a story. But I’m still eaten up with curiosity as to what the real story underlying it was.

    1. The original survey (up here, the people doing it named all the lakes after their wives and daughters) had the word “Stone *scribble*” and the clerk transposing it all two hundred years ago or so wrote “cipher” for the *scribble*, either intending it to be place holder or in a fit of pique over a whole lot of poor handwriting by the surveyor.

      1. Okay, so after their wives and daughters *or* stuff like “round” lake, or “star” lake, or “long” lake.

            1. It seems credibly likely though, doesn’t it?

              Both the story of how the lake got called “cipher” *and* the fact I made it up? 🙂

              1. 😉 Or maybe it was only poor research skills that kept me from becoming a Lovecraftian protagonist.

                The world may never know.

      2. Or something terrified the surveyor, or so enchanted him, that he botched the second word, the guy at HQ transcribed Stone [cipher] Lake, and there you go.

    2. Google sez Stonecipher is a not uncommon family name out of Tennessee. I’d look there.

      However, central Florida has a body of water whose name has been bolwerized to “Helen Blaze” on some maps. The original name was “Hell and Blazes” as a tribute to how far out in the sticks the lake lay.

      1. Finns were big with dirty names for locations. Then we got to late 19th and early 20th centuries and most of them got cleaned up. But you can still run into those when it’s something small and far away from habitation, like the two round swamp ponds next to each other I once encountered, Small ‘Ball’ and Big ‘Ball’ (except the Finnish word used was much less, er, clean).

        It can be fun to search for the original names. Lots of ones which would have made proper Victorian age ladies at least blush becomingly.

  3. I can still remember the kick in the gut from reading The Cold Equations how many years after? It was perfect for a short story – there was no time and no space to yell, ‘Noooooooooo.’

    Unfortunately, it’s been done. Unforgiving places. Hmmm. That gives me an idea…

    1. Similarly, I recall a story (don’t recall the title or the author), we had to read in 10th Grade AA English. About a takeoff roll in a jet fighter. The author laid out in opening exposition all of the things that had to go right for the plane to safely reach rotation and takeoff, and then checked off the first one and illustrated the cascade of failure, following it right to the crash site. It’s an ideal to be aspired to, and I always fall short, and end up in the weeds of the character’s morning ritual or backstory, or… I finally give up and realized I’m a novelist. But occasionally, I eye my idea file and wonder if there’s a short in there.


  4. One thought that comes to mind is the lightless realm from M3, or maybe the Zone from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.

    Another is that Ankh-Morpork may function as this in the first story of the first Discworld book.

  5. I take the point of the post, and am digesting.

    That said, “The Cold Equations” irritates me. It’s the sort of story where the environment (location) has been manipulated with the intent of killing the girl and eliciting emotional reactions. I found (on Wiki) a comment Gary Westfahl made to the tune of “good physics, but lousy engineering.”

    Note, I don’t object to manipulation to elicit emotional reactions in a story (frequently, that’s the point of a story), I object to transparent manipulations with inadequate justifications and catastrophic results. It’s a not infrequent hazard and it throws me violently out of the story and pisses me off.

    If I can, off the top of my head and with no consideration in depth, come up with multiple ways to resolve the situation before or after the critical point without significant alteration of the premise of the world… Well, then I’m pissed.

    I can envision ways this story could have been fleshed out to get to the same end without the flimsy framework, taking it out of the realm of short story. I can see how Godwin could have taken this framework (still flimsy) and created “ingenious ways to save the girl.” As Wiki indicates he did in the early versions, John W. Campbell sending it back for revision until the final result.

    As is, I find myself dispirited and irritated halfway through, with any of the helpless nobility of character in the pilot or the starship commander stripped away by their failure of simple foresight.

    This is the sort of thing that frequently turns me away from short stories, the expression of an idea within such minimal space too often leads to sparse storytelling where the dirty framework is all too visible.

    None of this is particularly on topic, except — as a reader, I don’t want to read short-stories that leave me feeling cheated, on my behalf or on behalf of the characters. I don’t want to read about an 18 year old girl ejected into space because a pilot couldn’t be bothered to do a damn pre-flight check of his craft!

    And now I’ll take my grumpy ass off to do something else.

    1. As far as I can now remember wasn’t the premise that most if not all similar flights were said to be as precarious? That would make it bad engineering, yes. If it had been very special circumstances – they heard the distress call at a moment when the craft had a very, very limited launch window, and because of that the pilot could not do a proper pre-flight check, and he was as low on fuel as he was because the planet which needed the drug was at the further limits of what that craft could reach but his was the only ship from which one could even try because they were the only ship with the required drugs on board (maybe they were being transported somewhere else, but there was enough to spare that they decided they could send some to that research station or whatever it was too) and passing just close enough to try – in other words, a very rushed decision, big risks, the girl accidentally hears somebody talking about the flight and makes a snap decision too, maybe under most circumstances she could have done what she did with no major problems… well, still manipulating the circumstances to reach the desired outcome, but then sh*t happens in real life too.

      1. Yes, the precarious nature of the flight was routine, thus the standing rules for ejection of stowaways.

        I could have accepted your premise with far more ease.

        1. Yes. And I think it would have made the same point anyway – that the universe doesn’t care, and ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I didn’t know’ mean nothing to it so you’d better try to find out the rules beforehand if at all possible and then obey them because many mistakes can and will kill.

  6. I tried writing a story where Snowdon, the mountain in Wales, was the driving force. It didn’t quite turn out the way I’d thought, but it worked. (And it really helps that there are all sorts of photo guides to hiking it, so you can get lots of nice details right.)

  7. In a great number of the old timy books I grew up on (animal adventure, westerns, Tarzan) *landscape* played an integral role in the story. Dune (already mentioned above) was one of those. So was the Outskirts, in the Steerswoman stories. The planet in Janet Kagen’s Hellspark, and Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (and also to some extent in ‘Always Coming Home’) also match this, for me. Alan Dean Foster did this A LOT. We could do with more of these, I think.

    1. All the lost colonies and lands in Africa Tarzan stumbles on… 😀

      BTW, with Tarzan one of the amusing things is that to some extent it seems real life has turned out to have parallels to those books, in spite of the fact that ERB is said to have known pretty much nothing about Africa when he wrote the stories and most probably hadn’t read about any of those folklore rumors – the Bili apes which might have stood as an inspiration for the Mangani, the gryf of Pal-Ul-Don, and the whole of that land which kind of sound as if he might have heard about the stories of Mokele-mbembe and Emela-ntouka, except he probably hadn’t. And maybe you could claim that the Great Zimbabwe could stand for Opar (except no treasure rooms full of gold and jewels, or beautiful white skinned priestesses). Although it’s more likely ERB had read of that place.

      Similar to the story about a guy who wrote ‘Futility, or the wreck of Titan’, a novella of a passenger ship being lost at sea after it had an encounter with an iceberg fourteen years before the Titanic sank, and several other similar stories of somebody imagining something unlikely which then sorta kinda happens in reality. 😀

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