The Bones of a City

What makes us know a city inside out?

Paris, with its catacombs, the Bastille, the sexy Metro.

London: Big Ben, the Tube, Carnaby Street in the ’60s.

Vienna, high architecture and Spanish horses, the big wheel in the Prater turning slowly, forever.

All three of them underpinned by big modern sewer systems you can track The Third Man through, or a Spoonsize Boy.

The Spoonsize Boys - Illustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm
The Spoonsize BoysIllustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm

What makes a city so memorable – and what makes it like nothing else on earth?

I’m intrigued by this for a number of reasons. I may not be about to list them all…

First, the sheer amount of stories set in particular cities which dominate all other locations. I’ve mentioned this before.

Second, I’d like to work out how that influence is constructed. Does the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes arise from the pages of Conan Doyle, or early-morning film productions in the misty hills of 1930s Hollywood? Or even weirder, from the smogs of Edinburgh’s Old Town where Robert Louis Stevenson set Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde?

Third, once I’ve worked this out, how do I produce it in my own writing?

How do I build a city magnificent enough to carry and hold its own myths?


The question first pushed itself to the forefront of my mind in 2019, after reading Glasgow belongs to us – a Guardian article on the Alasdair Gray novel, “Lanark”.

Now, I loathed the book. I only read it after Gray died, and I finished it in much the same way I persevered with Moby Dick – read it once, so I’ll never have to read it again, and can own my loathing as a gift of that perseverance.

But in the words of Janice Galloway, who wrote the article I came across after Gray’s death, quoting from the novel itself:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

– from Janice Galloway’s introduction to the 2002 edition of “Lanark” [my bold]

So… I know it’s easier to set a novel in Paris, or London, or even Moscow. We have shorthand for those places already.

As a novelist, you can lift the bones of a city into your story far easier if those bones have been sorted through already by earlier novelists.

But building a new city of your own? Even one based on a real city, with added magic and mystery and myth, takes a lot of heavy lifting.

Like building a cathedral, one stone at a time, if we want those cities to exist we have to create them. On foot, from maps, from history and our bold imaginations.

Who’s up for the journey?

Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov, painting of a busy street market in a Russian town
Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov

This week’s links:

Capitalism by Gaslight – The Shadow Economies of 19th- Century America* (another example of a common shorthand, in this case referring to the USA, not all or any other of the Americas)

The Official Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – SPFBO – hosted by author Mark Lawrence.

Dark Roasted Blend. In case I haven’t linked here before (but maybe I have).

Published in: on May 16, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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100% Writer’s Block

Now, having set out a dozen posts on The Last Rhinemaiden and how it came about, I’ll tell you how it ended.

For a while it seemed like every novel I read was based in London. And I noticed that I was also writing stories set in London, which bothered me somewhat.

The Cuckoo Club series is set in London, and Paris (so far). After two books I paused, and switched to Petticoat Katie.

The characters live in a shared house and go to work every day like ordinary people. Their adventures began in short stories, but their lives expanded in the first trilogy to include job loss, urban violence and unexpected pregnancy (and airships, betrayal, Turkish delight, guerrilla gardening, far too much cake, a whole cabinet of outrageous gadgets and a hundred monkeys).

a street corner in a Victorian city - Steep Street, Bristol, 1866
Steep Street, Bristol, 1866

But… still based in London.

And it got a little tiresome. Long before COVID, long before lockdown, I began to look further afield – looking for more interesting places to visit, and explore, and conjure up in my imagination for my characters to inhabit.

We think of certain cities in very limited terms – sometimes the place itself hasn’t gathered much history, but also because of choices and the perceptions forced upon us by marketing.

Why do we focus on Viking York, for example, and not so much on Roman York? When do we ever hear about Tudor York? How about glorious York during the Danelaw, when it was no longer Eboracum and halfway through Jorvik?

Great places within which to set novels and tell stories are available. Using London (or New York, or Vienna) as a setting is just laziness.

So I started thinking about place, in a very specific way, and how to change my writing to express more of this variety.

Why have steampunk always in London? Why not those other great cities of the British Empire – Birmingham, Belfast, Bombay?

Why not steampunk Havana? Steampunk Shanghai, or Lagos, or Djibouti?

And why Empire? Why British? Where’s the steampunk set in Bougainville, or Brazzaville, or Bogotá?

Probably I haven’t cast my nets widely enough to find those stories. Maybe I overlook them because of blurb or cover art or sub-genre.

Are they out there, waiting for me, if only I can lift my eyes from a limited set of map co-ordinates, and explore?

There are plenty of novels set in alternative cities, some of those contemporary with the steampunk timeframe like the stories of Jack London (another real-life adventurer).

Some are set in entirely imaginary cities, places upon which we can paint our home towns to add familiarity, but which are otherwise entirely fabricated out of magic and ink.

Ankh-Morpork.

Arkham.

Foundryside.

Later stories in the Petticoat Katie series take place outside of London, but I haven’t got round to writing them yet. The fourth novel in the series is 70% complete and has been since – och! – 2015.

It’s sat like a lump of 100% writer’s block on my desktop and I can’t shift it, even though I can see beyond it to other stories, other locations, other characters.

Places where there are statues on rooftops, locksmiths in narrow alleys, and a mist rising from the river at sunrise.

Now doesn’t that make you want to visit?

a cobbled street lined with shops with bright clothing hanging outside -
Calle Caldereria Nueva, Granada

In search of locations and art and gadgets, here’s this week’s links:

The anthem of Ankh-Morpork performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra (YouTube link)

Forsyth’s Compendium of Curious Contraptions – curious railways, steam engines, Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Glorious art and design posted regularly on Twitter at @NouveauDeco


Also this week – an update on this year’s writing goals:

  1. Non-fiction project has moved from the design phase to writing and formatting.
  2. Project NEVADA – added 1000 words – yes, it’s slow, I’m pacing myself.
  3. Poetry submissions came back unplaced; more submissions required.
Published in: on April 4, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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