When you’re writing an urban fantasy story, there are some things to consider, most of which have to do with taking a location that exists in real life and giving it a nice supernatural twist. How much do you know about the setting you’ve chosen? Is it a setting that already exists? And if it is, what are some questions to ask yourself about your urban fantasy story to take this setting that already exists and make it your fantastical world?
Where Am I Setting My Story?
Where are you choosing to set your story? Is it somewhere that already exists, like New York City, New Orleans, Tokyo, Los Angeles, or other commonly-used urban fantasy locations? Or is it a fictional town that exists in the real world, one that you can ground in reality while still taking some liberties with the specific location?
Keep in mind that writing an urban fantasy story that takes place in the real world means that you might have to do some research, do some learning about the location you picked. And even if you choose to go the route of setting your story in a fictional city or town, you still may need to do some research on the region you choose to put your setting in…unless you make no mention of the setting at all, which is totally an option as well if you’re feeling like keeping things vague and mysterious!
What Do I Know About the Story’s Setting?
If you choose an existing city or town as your urban fantasy setting, you’ll probably have some research to do. Considering the fact that you are adding an urban fantasy twist to this setting, you may be able to take some liberties with the location in terms of specific shops, landmarks, and other hotspots. But your readers who are from the setting in real life (assuming you choose a setting that already exists instead of inventing a city or town yourself) will know the area well, and they may expect to see familiar streets, landmarks, and other important facts about this place they know so well.
So ask yourself: what do you know about this setting? Did you invent it yourself, or does it already exist? And if it already exists, consider looking up actual locations in the town or city to add some realism to your urban fantasy story.
They don’t even need to be major landmarks. For example, I was writing a post-apocalyptic zombie tale where my intrepid protagonists make a stop for supplies in Beacon, a popular tourist spot in upstate New York. I looked up the town on Google Maps and found a Key Foods across the way from a bridal shop, and I used both locations in my story.
How Might the City/Town I Set the Story in Affect the Plot?
What’s the weather like? If it takes place in London, it might be pretty rainy a lot of the time. If it’s in Florida, your vampires might have a hard time dealing with sunlight. If it’s a city, it might be harder to hide the supernatural. If it’s in a rural location, there might be quite a few supernaturals laying low, choosing a low population location so it’s easier to hide what they are.
Is your location known for anything in particular? For example, New York City is one of the few places in the United States with a subway system. Austin, Texas is known as a somewhat unusual city (hence the motto, “Keep Austin Weird”). Chicago is known for its art scene. If you choose a small town, it might be the kind of place where everyone knows each other (which means lots of gossip, which could be a great plot point).
Look up the town/city you chose. The advantage you have with making up a city is that you can make up important locations on the fly, but it also means your reader won’t have that exciting, “Oh, hey, I know this place!” moment when they happen to live or have visited a real location.
What’s the Difference Between a Local and a Tourist in This Strange City/Town?
Your character may be from the city/town you choose as your setting, or they may not be. The question is: what does a local know about this setting that a visitor may not? If your character is part of the magical community, where are the hidden spots where the supernatural hang out? Is there some supernatural underbelly that the natives of the setting may know about, that tourists would not? How “natural” are the supernatural in this setting, and how comfortable are your characters with the setting itself?
It can be a source of conflict to have your protagonist know nothing about the setting, or even be very familiar to the setting but blind to the supernatural happenings within it. Use what your protagonist knows or doesn’t know to your advantage.
How Common Are the Supernatural in My Urban Fantasy Story?
Is there an underground supernatural community in your town/city? Or are they known to humankind? If they are known to humans, are they treated differently? If you have a fantasy kitchen sink in your urban fantasy story, are some magical beings treated better than others? Are they represented in government like anyone else?
If the supernatural remain hidden in your story, is there some form of glamor that keeps humans in the dark? Could one conflict in your story be that the masquerade is suddenly exposed to the human world?
This is arguably the most important question to ask yourself about your urban fantasy story, because the status of the supernatural within your city is a huge determinate of how your protagonist interacts with the world around them, and how often they encounter magical beings throughout the story. In Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, for example, humans are mostly kept in the dark about the myriad of magical beings that exist, and our hero Atticus—a druid who is several thousand years old, but looks to be in his twenties—owns a herbalism shop, Third Eye in Arizona.
In Daybreakers (technically a horror movie, but I count it as urban fantasy), most of humanity is infected with a virus that turns them into vampires. Here, the supernatural is not just known, but commonplace, and humans who refuse to turn are instead hunted down for food.
What Locations Within Your Setting Can I Use?
Landmarks, tourist traps, malls, city hall. Any popular location within the town or city you chose to set your urban fantasy story can be used as a place to set the climax of your story, the fight with the big bad. You can use sites like Tripadvisor, which often has articles listing the top locations within a city.
A pretty popular location in urban fantasy stories is a bar. Are there a lot of bars in the city you chose? Popular spots for locals? A buzzing night life?
What places in your urban fantasy world are the hubs for the supernatural community (assuming there is one)? Where might important plot points happen, and how can you use the location to further the story?
Are the Characters From This Setting? Do They Know It Well?
Going off of the “tourist vs. local” question above, you have to keep in mind not only how much you know about the setting you choose, but how much your protagonist knows. Are they a local? Have they lived in this location for a while? Have they just moved in, and if they have, do they know the supernatural hotspots, or the important places to know?
If your protagonist is new to the area, it may seem like they’re limited, but the reality is that you can use that to your advantage by introducing this urban fantasy version of a real location through the lens of your new-to-the-area hero.