If fantasy in general is like the folkloric mode of legends, then urban fantasy is even more so. Because legends don’t take place at the dawn of time or in a fairy-tale kingdom far, far away; they take place in the teller’s own world. Over the familiar face of that world, a legend writes an additional layer, so that it’s not just a castle but a haunted castle. Not just a hill, but one with faeries under it. Not just a pass through the mountains, but one carved by a giant’s dragging axe.
Back when I was in graduate school, I played in a long-running role-playing game based on Changeling: The Dreaming, which is urban fantasy (faeries in the modern world). One of the central conceits is, as the title indicates, a realm called the Dreaming, which in its nearer reaches reflects the mundane world in a fantastical guise. Our game was set in the town we lived in, so as I wandered around the city, I mentally reflected on the things that existed in the characters’ world but not mine: a tower here, a monument there, a floating fortress above the student union. When I ran my own Changeling game, this one set in London, I focused intensively on that idea — with the result that a few years later, when I went to London to research the first Onyx Court book (itself based on that game), I found myself seeing two cities at once. Not just the river, but Father Thames. Not just the Tower of London, but a former freehold. Not just the Monument to the Great Fire, but a zenith telescope (that part is true) that would be used in an important mystical ritual (that part I made up).
I adore urban fantasy that does this sort of thing. Rather than taking place in Generictown, USA, the author embeds the tale in a specific place, drawing on local detail and then adding another layer. In Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, set in Minneapolis, the characters at one point go sit on the shore of Lake of the Isles — so in my mind, they’re sitting across from my great-aunt’s house, which faces that very lake. It’s Minneapolis; there are lakes everywhere, and she didn’t have to specify which one. But she chose to, and that brought the story to life in a way it wouldn’t have been with a generic body of water.
For a reader who doesn’t know Minneapolis, what does that detail add? Not as much, to be sure. But fiction lives and dies by the vividness of its details, and marinating my story in its setting helps me be specific in ways I wouldn’t think to consider, otherwise. There isn’t just a door to the Onyx Hall somewhere in the western part of the City of London; there’s one near Newgate, where there was a butchers’ shambles for a time, and a famous prison for much longer, and it got overrun by the Great Fire of London at a specific point in the blaze’s progress. Even for readers who don’t know London, the specificity helps weave bits of description together into a larger whole.
You can to some extent do this with a made-up setting, too, whether it’s secondary world or an invented town in ours. It won’t ever have the resonance of the Lake of the Isles, because there’s no real place that some of your readers might know, but if you’re very rigorous about your details, you can create that vivid, lifelike picture in the reader’s mind. Know where everything is, name places rather than leaving them vague, stop and ask yourself what path your characters take when going from A to B, and whether that would be relevant to what happens along the way. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done.
And how cool is it, when the world has those kinds of layers? If my readers if ever go to London, they can visit the city of my imagination.