Place as Person – Alan Baxter

Our next contributor for the Place as Person series is Alan Baxter. I eye people like Alan from afar, with something akin to awe: where does he get the energy to do it all? Writing, blogging, Kung Fu, reams of good advice… Check out his thoughts on writing the fight right



When Mary asked me to write a piece for this series of guest posts, I jumped at the chance. For me, the location in a story is just as much a character as any people (or other entities) might be. I’ve always enjoyed most those stories in which the place is real in my mind. It doesn’t take paragraph after paragraph of descriptive prose – in fact, that’s the worst way to approach writing about anything. It takes prime elements, dropped here and there throughout the story, which key us in to where we are, where the characters are, and lets us exist in that place with them. Little hints of little details, sweeping mentions of big details – smells, sensations, skylines, weather, the crunch of broken glass underfoot in a dripping alley. These are the things which make a place into a person.

As a teenager reading the stories of masters like Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock, I came to realise what could be achieved with a well-written place, tales which paid attention to the world in which they were set. China Mieville in Perdido Street Station, for example, creates a city so vibrant, so real, so inhabited, that we know what it’s like to live there.

I’ve been asked many times where the opening of my first book, RealmShift, is set, because it’s never named. I always answer, “The City.” For me, the city is the greatest place-as-person there is, but then I’m primarily a dark urban fantasy writer. I deliberately set the start of RealmShift in an unnamed city – it could as easily be New York, London, Sydney or Gotham. I wanted readers to overlay their own character of city on it – our readers have powerful imaginations and I like to let them exercise that gift while they read – but the city in question was very real in my mind, and I was careful to make it as authentic and well-realised as any of the people (or gods, demons and other monsters) in the book.

My third novel, which is out seeking a publisher now, is set all over the world. It starts in Sydney, but travels to Canada, Britain and elsewhere. While I was writing it I went on holiday with my wife and we toured around Scotland and then stopped in Rome for a week on the way home. I had to then change aspects of the book and set large, key scenes in Scotland and Rome. Those places were fresh in my mind – I’d seen, smelled, felt their personalities – and I had to write about them.

In a story, where something happens is just as important as why it happens and how it happens, and for that to work, the place has to be as much a character as the players. Everyone should travel, to experience the massive differences and surprising similarities between London and Hong Kong, or between Sydney and Barcelona, and so on. It’s a luxury, and one we have to work hard to afford, but it’s so rewarding on a personal level and fantastic grist for the writing mill, whether you set stories in those places, or use those experiences to create utterly believable worlds of your own.


Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author living on the south coast of NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. His contemporary dark fantasy novels, RealmShift and MageSign, are out through Gryphonwood Press, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US and the UK, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror. Alan is also a freelance writer, penning reviews, feature articles and opinion. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – – and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

Twitter: @AlanBaxter


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8 Responses to Place as Person – Alan Baxter

  1. Gillian says:

    I was going to make a very serious comment, because I entirely agree with you in the importance of place. Instead I want to ask if a dripping alley is anything like a bowling alley? I blame the spirit of the place in which I live, for it invades my sleep and leaves me with only a sense of humour to sustain me. I also blame summer storms.

  2. Helen Lowe says:

    You’ve made me feel determiend to go out and book that flight right now, Alan … although I also wonder, are you also saying, indirectly, that all FSF worlds ar ein some sense ‘our world’, that there can’t really be any right-out-there flights of imagination …?

  3. Alan Baxter says:

    Gillian – A dripping alley is where beef fat is put into small containers and sold to the poor for a penny a tub.

    Helen – Absolutely not! But it’s a good point you raise. I think we can exercise our minds to explore realms far beyond anything we can experience on Earth. In RealmShift, for example, the protagonist also goes to Hell, and that was a complete flight of imagination for me.

    But I think the more we explore the different places on this planet, the more we see small and big differences AND similarities, the better informed we are to not only write about those kinds of places, but to make up completely new ones of our own. And I love to make up a completely new place as much as I like to write about places I know. In my short fiction I write a lot of sci-fi and pure fantasy and get to exercise that kind of place-creation there. I’m currently planning a novel set in a completely new urban environment like nothing on our planet.

    But while we can certainly create “right-out-there flights of imagination”, I think they’ll always be informed a bit by our world. It’s cool to take what we know and ask, “What if…?” and create something completely new.

    Sorry – rambling! This is a subject quite fascinating to me, as you can probably tell!

    • Helen Lowe says:

      And to me, Alan, so no apology needed for the ‘ramble.’ My own view is that it’s very hard ‘not’ to have our fantastic realms informed by our experiences of this world, whether through close observation of the familiar or the ‘surprise’ of the unfamiliar, but if we are to truly be specualtive fiction authors then there is almost a duty to speculate–to try and imagine the unimaginable.

  4. Pingback: Place As Person – my guest post at Mary Victoria’s site – The Word – According To Me | The Word

  5. Kim Falconer says:

    This is so interesting. Thank you Alan.

    I agree with you and Helen. Our perception of the world informs all other experiences and most importantly, the readers’. But speculate, yes! That’s the whole idea 🙂

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