Back in 2016, I was lucky enough to be involved with a book sprint – the goal being to write a book in a weekend. There were a dozen or so of us, gathered together in a computer suite at the University of Salford, a fringe event at a Science Festival. It was great fun, and I would absolutely do it again, given the opportunity. Not only was it a nice chunk of time to concentrate on writing, but there were some great conversations, one of which sort of has relevance to today’s post. The thrust of the conversation was that scientists like lists, especially if we can produce some sort of graph to go with it…
Before we get to the list, I should probably explain what a polder is. No, it’s not a pebble sized boulder. A polder, by dictionary definition, is a low lying tract of land that has been reclaimed from the water – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the word polder is derived from the Dutch. But in literary terms, especially, but not exclusively, fantasy fiction, a polder represents a bordered piece of land which in some way exists apart. It has some of the characteristics of a Potterverse building that cannot be seen by muggles, or those who are not privy to the secret. Of itself, it is not a portal to somewhere else, but it may well protect a portal, or a portal may be required to reach it. A lot of polders are gardens, such as Tom Bombadil’s in the Lord of the Rings (but it is worth noting that Rivendell is not – a discussion for another day, perhaps). A polder could be a single room in a house or, as mentioned, a garden, or it could be a whole building, or a forest, a whole world, or a pocket dimension. The defining characteristic of a polder is that it is unchanging, except if it comes under attack from without… The creation of polders can be attributed, or not: for example in Good Omens, the Just William-esque juvenile lead creates a polder over a good chunk of the countryside. The angel Aziraphale (technically a Principality, “but people made jokes about that these days”) notes that “someone really loves this place”. Sometimes, a polder just is, such as Avalon.
One of the reasons that I like SF&F is that generally speaking it gives me license to make up the setting. This can add some complexity to the world building (which can be both good and bad) but gives us the opportunity to create the landscape we want/need for the story. The geography or, as it were, the ‘set’ for the story can give us an insight into the characters (221B Baker Street, for example) or can almost represent a character in its own right (Castle Gormenghast, perhaps, or the London of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World).
Which brings us to the list…when it comes to writing, I think there are five kinds of setting, whether macro or micro, that we can think of:
- A real place. I really struggle with this, because I worry that the locals are going to take offence, especially if you mention someone living at a particular, real address, or that there is going to be some kind of mistake, such as describing a character driving the wrong way down a one-way road. This is perhaps less of an issue with an historical setting.
- A deliberate reimagining of a real landscape (see e.g. Carola Dunn’s Cornish Mysteries series, with an upfront statement that the stories, set in the 1970s, are set in a Cornwall remembered from youth, and adjusted to fit the narrative).
- A polder – a wrinkle in the landscape holding an entire setting for a story. The Rotherweird Series, by Andrew Caldecott, incorporates almost a small county in such a wrinkle; a non-fantasy version arises in Simon Brett’s Feathering detective series – named for the village which sits in a polder on the South Coast of England just down (or perhaps up) the road from the very real Tarring.
- A real place, but a universe or two over. Arguably this describes any fictional setting, but this is perhaps a distinguishing feature of speculative fiction in general if not science fiction and fantasy specifically, and there are books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” which are incredibly feasible, but aren’t our timeline.
- A completely made up setting. This could be another planet, or a country wedged into a familiar geography, such as with the Ruritanian Romances (exemplified by “The Prisoner of Zenda”). You might suggest that there is little difference between Ruritania and Fethering, at least in ‘a wedged into the local geography’ sense, and you may even be right.
So where does this get us? At the very least, it gives us an opportunity to order our thoughts, and that is never to be sneezed at. I think there are at least two other benefits though. Firstly, looking back over what other people have done, it gives us permission to play with the landscape as we wish to tell the story that we want to tell. If our story is contemporary then we may want to give the reader fair warning that we have made up the locale, or that we have taken liberties and that the setting is not to be found on an A-Z or OS map; sometimes this is even built into the story, and you can include the geography in the ‘names have been changed to protect the guilty’ rubric at the beginning of the book. Secondly, it gives us an opportunity to make a decision, and to act accordingly. Is the setting as much of a character as any of the protagonists? Do we need to develop the landscape and give it an arc, or will a simple pen-sketch suffice to get the message across? This my be an ongoing decision, depending upon where the story takes us, and of course not all stories take place in a single setting. The Brownstone of Nero Wolfe, 221b Baker Street, Castle Gormenghast – all these are integral to the story, in some cases an extension of the main character themselves. Other locations are less important – a meeting in diner, or a library, or a mad dash through a train station, probably don’t need a high level of detail.
Not everywhere needs to be a polder, mystical or otherwise, but they can be helpful, and aren’t restricted to Fantasy or Science Fiction genres.
So, do you have a favorite polder? Are there times when you’ve been frustrated when a writer got the the geography ‘wrong’? Who gets the evocation of the setting perfect every time?