If asked to close one’s eyes and picture Narnia, I am willing to bet that just about everyone will picture a snow-covered wood surrounding a clearing where a lamppost sheds a soft, golden light … just beyond a wardrobe door. Something about that image, that specific location, is iconic. It’s a strong, concrete, visual image. It’s something we almost can’t help responding to, almost like it, that one place, was a character in a story. When we revisit, years later, it’s like meeting an old friend.
As many of you know, some partners and I are starting a new publishing venture, ePic Adventures, Inc. We’ll be doing print books, sure, but our emphasis is on eBooks. Magical eBooks. Think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.
In short, ePic Books present a platform that stretches the idea of what an eBook can be. The original idea was to focus on a narrow selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, paranormal romance, and young adult. Our investors and advisors talked me out of that. So we’re focusing on fantasy, at least for the first year or two, and expanding once we’ve built our brand.That still doesn’t narrow things down a whole lot. So we have developed a sort of checklist of things we’re looking for. Some of them have to do with the medium … books we we purchase (yes, we’ll be paying advances and royalties) have to have elements that fit the technology we’re developing. That’s obvious enough.
And, of course, we’re looking for the usual: strong characters, excellent writing, surprises, unique ideas, well-structured stories. all that stuff. I would have mentioned that first, since ultimately those are most important. But they are kind of obvious, and most publishers, even small ones, have literally hundreds of manuscripts that meet those criteria on their desks at any one time.
Beyond that, we took a heuristic look at story, trying to identify elements that the truly successful works in the genre, regardless of medium, share in common. That’s not to say that we’re trying to be formulaic. Far from it. But certain elements are at the heart of successful stories, especially in the fantasy genre. There are things many share in common. Those are the elements we’ll be looking for next year.
The first? Iconic locations. Think of some of the most beloved and successful fantasy works. Almost without exception, they feature absolutely forgettable locations: places that everyone who has ever experienced the work can describe in a minute. Think of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory or the cantina in Star Wars. In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is almost as much a star as Harry himself, and it stands out in a series that is absolutely packed with iconic locations.
In fact, I am at a loss to think of a truly successful fantasy that has endured the test of time that doesn’t include at least one absolutely iconic location. The Wizard of Oz? Think of that first color shot Munchkin Land, or the Emerald City, or even the Yellow Brick Road. Field of Dreams? The baseball field in the cornfield. The Name of the Wind? The University, of course, and its library in particular. A Song of Ice and Fire? I think the Wall is likely the best example.
If you’ve read the works of Charles de Lint, think of his Tamson House or his city of Newford. Speaking of cities, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be an exception, although you can argue (convincingly, I think) that the snow-covered London is as much a part of the story as Scrooge and the ghosts.
Now, picture scenes from the best of the Disney animated films. They are rife with iconic locations, from the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the castle, the pub, and the lonely tower in Tangled. Picture Pleasure Island or the Fairies’ House from Sleeping Beauty. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of those films, those places are locked away somewhere in the attics of your brain. They are beautifully realized.Or maybe the most perfect example of all: Bag End in Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Tolkien even begins with a description if Bag End in The Hobbit … it is described in loving detail long before we learn one single fact about the main character (aside from the fact that he lives there, which now that I mention it does tell the reader rather a lot about Bilbo Baggins) or the story. We know about that hole in the ground long before we learn of wizards, dwarves, or dragons.
Of course, Professor Tolkien’s works are full of iconic locations, and many of them are places you long to visit. LothLorien. Rivendell. The Lonely Mountain. Beorn’s House. The Prancing Pony in Bree. Minas Tirith. Mirkwood. Gollum’s cave.
Gormenghast. Amber. The Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse. Dune. Treasure Island. 221 B Baker Street (although as with Mr Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle’s London might be a better example). The Hundred Acre Wood. Ray Bradbury’s Greentown or Mars. Barsoom. Callahan’s. Neverland. Prydain. The Commonwealth (yes, the whole damn thing) from Silverlock. The Batcave. The starship Enterprise. Even the secret junkyard headquarters in the Three Investigators books.
Mentioning the Three Investigators may be a cheat, since they are mystery rather than fantasy, but looking back at my love of reading, I honestly think it begins with my longing to visit that secret headquarters (through Tunnel Two, naturally) or Charlie’s chocolate factory, that amazing creation of Mr. Wonka and Mr. Dahl. The place was a part of the appeal. If you’re lost in a story, isn’t one of the reasons that some part of you wishes, deeply in the heart, to visit those places you’re falling in love with?
I won’t say that is rule is universally true. But again, I am at a loss to think of an exception. I’m sure one will occur to me the instant I hit “publish,” but it’ll be the exception that proves the rule. I am also not saying it’s the only element that makes these stories work, or even that it’s the most important one. (We have a whole list of key elements that I’ll be talking about on this blog over the next few weeks.)
So what makes an image iconic? Four things, I think.
First, an iconic location is utterly unforgettable. Once seen, it lingers.
Two, it’s distinctive. If you’ve experienced the story, you should be able to name the location at a glance or describe it in a sentence or three. It must be utterly unmistakable. There’s no confusing Bag End or the Emerald City. Both were described perfectly, and later realized brilliantly on screen. Ideally, one should be able to sketch it (although you’d need a green crayon for the Emerald City).
Third, it’s an integral part of the story. After all, where would the Arthurian legends be without Camelot? One of the reasons the ending of The Lord of the Rings (the real one, not the awful movie ending) works so well is because we’ve come to share the characters’ love of the Shire.Finally, and most importantly, an iconic location inspires emotional response independent of the audience’s response to the character or story. Iconic locations evoke strong emotions … usually wistful longing (who doesn’t want to visit Bag End or the Beaver’s Dam for Tea?) or dread. The Death Star and Orthanc are both unforgettable and utterly unmistakable, but really, who wants to hang out there?
By the way, my friend Angela Still has pointed out that iconic locations are also a key part of gothic literature, too. I think more than a few of these key elements are also important in other genres, too. I should also point out that iconic locations are very close to, but not quite the same as, the next criteria on the list: iconic images. But I’ll talk about that next week.
So what do you think? Are iconic locations a part of what you respond to? If you are a creator, how important are iconic locations to your story? I’d really love to hear your thoughts and ideas.