Over the past weeks, I've spent time talking about the pros and cons of using either fictional and IRL locations in your writing. In those posts, I alluded to hybrid settings but didn't go into much detail at the time—even though that's what I tend to prefer to have as the backdrop of my stories.
Hybrid settings straddle the line between real-world locations and those completely invented by the writer.
Blending these two options together can create a happy medium for writers of any genre, so for the next entry in this Settingstember series, I want to share some of the reasons that make hybrid settings feel like home for my WIPs.
But first, let's jump into what a hybrid setting is.
The Best Of Both Worlds
Hybrid settings are the blend of elements from settings you find in the real world and worlds created from scratch.
The way a writer chooses to go about this might be dependent on personal preference or genre.
In my historical romances, I'm focused on the Regency Era and though I have drawn from IRL places, there's always a spot or two that was created specifically for my rendition of this time period. A WIP set in London may reference famous landmarks like the Tower or White's, but spots like characters' residences are created for the purpose of the story (though often take inspiration from architectural trends of the time).
This is what I'd call a smaller-scale hybrid, taking a larger location and slipping in my own additions.
Oftentimes, however, I find myself tackling large-scale hybrids.
Most of my stories are rooted in counties throughout England, like Cornwall and Derbyshire, but center on fictional towns within them. I might include mention of an IRL town being a certain distance away just so the reader can have a better understanding of what I'm going for, but the majority of details are from my own imaginings.
But why is this my preference? It starts with freedom.
Writers know the trials, tribulations, and woes of researching for fiction. As someone who writes historical pieces, it's an essential part of my process.
The problem is, it's easy to run in circles and crash into walls.
It's great when you're able to get your hands on concrete facts, but that's not always what happens despite the many hours devoted to scrolling through websites and poring over textbooks.
Longtime readers of the blog know I am an advocate for educated guesses and drawing sensible conclusions when it comes to filling in the gaps, but sometimes, that pressure becomes overwhelming. When I'm writing a story set in an IRL location, I have this internal fear that I'll get something wrong and therefore will upset future readers living there.
Working with hybrid settings alleviates some of that feeling.
You cannot get something wrong if you're the one in charge of creating the world.
Hybrid settings also help bridge the gaps where research is scarce and allow for some wiggle room depending on how specific you want to get.
If you're writing a WIP set in an area you know gets a lot of rain but can't pull up a definite account of a downpour occurring on October 22, 1811 in that region but envision your love interests' first kiss being inspired by sharing an umbrella, hybrid settings create the space for that to occur. It may not have been raining in Billingshurst but the weather was incredibly dreary and damp in the nearby town of Oak Hart.
Putting my perfectionist habits at ease is one of the biggest reasons I more often work with hybrid settings; this way, I can focus on creation and not producing a carbon copy while remaining mostly true to the facts I am able to track down.
Figuring It Out
On a similar note to research difficulties, mathematics happens to be something that pops up more often in writing than this English major anticipated. From determining the age of a character at a certain event in their life or how long it would take a coach to reach a neighboring town to figure out how much a British pound in 1812 would be worth today (and then converting that number to modern-day US dollars for my own clarity), writing is very much a numbers game.
In my experience, hybrid settings allow for ballpark estimates instead of demanding exact calculations.
Rather than trying to get the numbers exactly perfect, writers can instead base important numbers on averages and estimates.
Back when I was drafting my agricultural romance, I lucked out and found a wonderful research book containing charts of the average amount of grains grown over the course of several years throughout northern England. As detailed as it was, it was also a lot to sort through and hadn't helped me narrow down where I wanted to have my characters reside.
I ultimately took the averages from a few areas and applied that to the town I was inventing. With this range, I was not only able to finally land on a county to build my story in but create a farming district that fit right in with its IRL neighbors.
Again, keeping my perfectionist urges at bay.
Meeting In The Middle
Some writers know from the instant they begin to envision their next project where they want the events to take place, but others might choose to experiment before deciding on their setting.
Hybrid settings are a great option for this phase of deliberation because they straddle the line between real life and fiction and therefore do not ask you to commit to one zone or the other.
You might have a few ideas that could work in a real location but aren't sure if you want to go that route. Contrarily, you may be intimidated by the amount of worldbuilding associated with fictional settings.
Hybrid settings let you test drive both, in a sense.
As you start playing around with these concepts, you may start with an IRL setting as a base for this project and find that better suits you and prefer to stay within that realm, or your adding in fantasy elements leads you to discover you like the process and want to try your hand at worldbuilding completely from scratch.
Or your could find yourself in the position I was in when finding the home for my writing style and stay in the middle with hybrid settings.
The beauty of hybrid settings is that you aren't locked into one zone or the other or find yourself limited to one side. Instead, you may find yourself working with ratios. One story you write might be set in Las Vegas and see your characters visiting a fictional casino sandwiched between icons on the strip, creating a 60:40 split between the real and the imagined, while the next finds its focus in a fictional town in North Dakota for a 25:75 split.
Hybrid settings offer flexibility that has made them my favorite option for settings.
A Foundation Of Familiarity
This was a point I touched on in my IRL settings post, and it plays into hybrid settings just as easily.
Some writers decide to write stories set in real locations because of the familiarity they provide. It more or less falls under the "write what you know" mantra.
Additionally, readers might have an easier time orienting themselves in the setting because it's something they are familiar with, whether that's a well-known city like Dublin or a hidden gem in Vermont that readers can imagine or look up on Google Maps later if they want to explore.
Hybrids can offer a similar experience.
If you're writing a cozy mystery set in a fictional city settled in Florida but don't want to use an actual location like Miami or Orlando, hybrids may be the option for you. Even though the city doesn't exist, readers can envision it because Florida is such a well-known area. As soon as your character mentions the state they're in, readers might be able to feel the heat or smell the salt of the sea lingering in the air as they walk along the beach and hear the commotion of tourists.
At the same time, the writer is able to create the city as they wish, without worrying about their audience getting lost along the way.
One reason writers might prefer fictional settings is the freedom they provide. With no boundaries to adhere to or significant real-world aspects they cannot change for fear of being criticized for inaccuracy, there is a limitlessness in creating fictional settings from the ground up.
Contrarily, however, it's easy to get caught up in these details, from spending years in the worldbuilding phase to coming up with so much it becomes hard to whittle the descriptions down to only what pertains to the story itself.
Writers of hybrid settings find themselves in a sweet spot because while they are creating something from scratch, they might still have some boundaries to adhere to.
For example, my hybrids are rooted in English towns. If I'm working on a shoreline romance set in a resort town, that becomes my focus. I keep myself and my research primarily to details of Ramsgate or Brighton. This mindset (usually!) prevents me from diving into rabbit holes or spiraling too far from the narrative.
Structure and a sense of rules, though their absence is lauded by creatives, has helped me improve as a writer. Even when a story I'm working on revolves around a fictional town, having these parameters lets me stay rooted in the world around my characters.
The Description Diving Board
New writers may engage in writing exercises to practice their craft. Some of these activities may be concentrated on building up a specific skill, like conducting a character interview when learning character development or a writing sprint to establish a new habit of distraction-free writing.
On a similar note, hybrid settings can be an option for writers who want to improve their worldbuilding.
With a hybrid setting, you're not starting from zero, but you're not working with a completed world, either.
In writing classes I've had over the years, a common assignment was describing a real location to practice scene descriptions. Sometimes, this meant everyone described the classroom we were sitting in, or we would be challenged to write about a setting through the eyes of our protagonist even if the project we were writing over the semester was being written in third-person.
For those finding worldbuilding from scratch a challenge, this served as an introduction to the process of picking out details and crafting a sensory experience for the reader—especially with the second part of the exercise.
Here, we would be challenged to add something new to the setting we described, maybe a coffee shop or park. Even though we were still working with a familiar setting, the "building" part of worldbuilding came into play. The difference is, it didn't feel as intimidating because we had already eased ourselves into the process of describing our setting. Putting our own spin on what we already had felt more manageable than designing everything from nothing, and it often led to reworking existing details to become completely original reimaginings.
Basing a setting off of IRL places acts as a jumping-off point to expand on without diving into the deep end of entirely fictional settings.
One of my favorite aspects of the hybrid settings is the ease in building up IRL settings and letting them mingle with fictional elements to create a new, vivid setting.
As a writer, you might find inspiration walking through your local mall. Passing by the food court, clothing stores, that one jewelry store with the prettiest things you would be too afraid to wear even if you could afford them, you may start generating story ideas. Maybe you pause for some people-watching as a means of gathering ideas for characters. There might be a model in an advertisement that makes your heart flutter and your brain cast them as a love interest in your new project. And if it's anything like the mall I used to work at, there's potentially at least one store with a countdown and major sales to clear inventory as part of the retailer going out of business or simply changing locations.
A quick glance inside and you're met with barren shelves and a somber air. And your mind starts to wander.
Suddenly, you're imagining an apocalyptic state and out of nowhere, you have your next writing idea.
You let your thoughts simmer as you continue through the mall, wondering how each store would fare in this derelict scenario or how a group of survivors would turn it into their home base.
From there, the story begins to direct itself.
Hybrid settings can let you get creative with life and build up the world around you to fit the needs of your story.
IRL locations can provide a solid base for your writing, but sometimes it's more fun to embellish the truth.
On a similar note, maybe you come across something in research and think to yourself, "Wouldn't be interesting if instead of that, this were a thing?" and explore an alternative history or weave modern-day threads into a century long since past. Hybrid settings can make this possible.
The setting chosen for a story is very much its core, and the challenge of settling the right one is not to be underestimated. It's also the thing that can make your writing feel like home not only for your characters, but your readers, making them eager to revisit previous works and race to pick up new ones.
Hybrid settings allow writers to balance the fictional and fantastical with the familiar, making them worth considering when deciding where you want your story to take place. In truth, it's a decision for the indecisive, blending pros and cons from both fictional and factual locations in a happy medium.