The Style Sheets — Part III: Locations
by Amy J. Schneider
In any novel or short story, the characters move around the world they inhabit: within buildings and throughout neighborhoods, cities, and even sometimes spiritual realms. Let’s talk about how to keep that motion logical. Many of the general concepts discussed last month in “The Style Sheets — Part II: Characters” apply here as well, so you may wish to review that article as we go along.
Here We Go Again: Details, Details, Details!
Last month I talked about the proclivity of copyeditors to keep alphabetical lists of characters, and how doing so isn’t really all that helpful for maintaining continuity. And so it is with geographical details. Rather than simply listing all places alphabetically, it’s much more useful to group places by their relation to each other: a house with all its descriptive interior and exterior details, shops that are near each other, streets and how they are connected, and so on.
One exception I do make to the no-alphabetizing rule is that after the edit is done, I often have a list of minor features such as streets, rivers, or businesses that do not have any extra information associated with them. These I will alphabetize by category—all the streets, all the rivers, and so on—just for ease of finding them.
Keeping It Real — Or Not
Many novels are set in real locations, and for the most part you’ll need to make sure that the details given reflect reality. Have you ever read a novel set in a location with which you are well familiar and scoffed when a street ran in the wrong direction, or a building was miles away from its real location? (One of my favorite examples from the world of television was from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days; in one episode some characters walked from Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in about an hour. Anyone who’s driven from the area where I grew up to Milwaukee knows that it is indeed about an hour from Fond du Lac to Milwaukee — in a car.) When specifics are given, check them out. Get out your atlas or pull up an online map.
However, bear in mind also that authors often introduce deliberate fictionalization, much in the same way that phone numbers in movies and on television are often of the “555” variety. So when you find such errors, bring them to the author’s attention, but query whether the error is deliberate.
For completely fictional locations, such as fictional towns or fantasy worlds, you may find it helpful to draw maps to help you (and the characters) keep your bearings.
Details to Track
With locations, as with characters, track anything that could be contradicted later. If a character’s bedroom window faces west, we don’t want her awakened in the morning by the blinding sun. Don’t let a solid wooden door turn into steel. And so on. Let’s look at what sorts of things you might want to put on your style sheet:
- Cardinal directions and distances (the mountains are west of town; the comedy club is a few miles from Benny’s apartment; the fictional town of Midvale is a 3-hour drive from St. Louis; the laundromat is at the southwest corner of the intersection)
- This point also relates to the timeline, discussed in next month’s article: if the characters take a day to travel from point A to point B, but a week to return, it’s time to query. Either there’s a problem with the number of days that have passed during that return trip, or there should be a good reason for the delay.
- Also watch for the relationships between locations; if a hotel is just outside the city limits, how can the bar across the street be 5 miles out? This is where grouping by location can help you catch inconsistencies.
- Names of regions, cities/towns, streets, geographical features, businesses, buildings; any proper nouns (including real names that might be spelled different ways: Walmart, 7-Eleven)
- Descriptions of interiors
- Décor, colors of walls/furniture/drapery, furniture type and placement; locations of rooms, windows, and doors; other details (the house has only one bathroom; Betty’s house has a business landline)
- Right/left: rooms off hallways, doors, wings of mansions; turns taken while walking/driving to get from point A to point B (if specifics are given) (the main staircase turns to the right; Robert’s office is on the left side of the hallway off the living room)
- Where the sun rises and sets (remember our early riser!)
- Number of floors in buildings, locations of rooms (watch out for British usage here; in British usage, the ground floor is at street level and the first floor is the next one up, whereas in American usage we start with the first floor)
- Remember that if an apartment is on the fourth (American!) floor, you will climb only three flights of stairs to get to it.
- Descriptions of exteriors: landscaping, architecture (the cemetery is not fenced; Lydia’s house has a flagstone path from the small front porch to the sidewalk; neat flowerboxes at every window)
- Business hours and regular events (the gas station is open every day; if the book club always meets at Beans & Books on Tuesdays, then what are they doing there on a Saturday?)
Again, as for character details, you can simply copy descriptions from the manuscript to your style sheet to save time, and edit as desired to save space. Note the chapter number where the description first occurs.
I Found a Contradiction; Now What?
Again, refer back to “The Style Sheets — Part 2: Characters” for guidance on resolving discrepancies. If there is a minor difference, it’s probably safe to change and query. But if the problem involves a factor that’s critical to the plot, bring it to the author’s attention and suggest solutions if you can.
Remember that when you are wearing your copyeditor hat, you are like the continuity director for a movie. If the locations are meant to represent real locations, it’s your job to make sure they are accurate. If they are fictional (or fictionalized), make sure they stay true to themselves within that fictional world. Next month, I’ll talk about keeping an accurate timeline to ensure that the story does not breach the space-time continuum (unless it’s supposed to!).
Amy J. Schneider (firstname.lastname@example.org), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.