The Journey Through the Urban Landscape

Welcome to my mysterious guest Grey Wolf today – with a different take on settings which for him merely wait for the story to come along. Nor does he set much store by pictures, preferring to let his words do the painting. Enjoy the journey…


In upbringing I was very much an edge of the city boy, I could go inwards into the urban jungle or outwards into the woods and fields. But whilst I could find nothing particular to write about where a farmhouse or a field of corn was concerned (except in poetry) I have always been drawn to describing the grandeur of an urban landscape.

Most of my stories are in the genre of Alternate History and this offers a lot of scope for invention. On the one hand this can be tinkering with a real city and adding small changes from the backstory, maybe somebody other than the royal family owns Buckingham Palace, or maybe a different railway conglomeration came into being through mergers and acquisitions. Whilst apparently staid, the latter offers a lot of opportunity for ‘colour’ in a story, as do things like tweaking the streets and squares of an alternate London (not too hard to do if you have an atlas of how the city grew by developments).

But my greatest passion is in the complete redesign, or invention of urban landscapes, either by setting the Point of Divergence for the story so far back that several centuries of alternate history have happened, or by having such a major change somewhere along the way that, for example, the capital of an alternate Britannia is in a city such as Lancaster, or even across the ocean in the Americas.

In a way, alternate history writers can ‘own’ their urban landscapes more than any other writer, except perhaps for those in science fiction and fantasy. London is London, but Barnard’s Castle may be the home of the brutal secret police, or there may be a giant park in Camden where a nuclear bomb exploded in the 1960s.

Creating alternate history offers one the chance to create majesty and solemnity, beautiful buildings, parks and avenues. As Jaimé de Vos said about my unpublished novel ‘His Peculiar Domain‘ : “What a beautiful world you have created! It’s doing wonders for my imagination. My mind’s eye is filled with images of luxury and decadence, long majestic streets, stylish shop fronts 1900’s chique and lots of cigars and pipes.”

Yet, urban landscapes don’t need to hark to some imagined Victorian or Edwardian heyday. In my short story ‘Ethereal Light’, the city of Southampton boasts a huge soaring skyscraper with a docking station for an Imperial Airship, whilst down below the battleships in the naval dockyards shine brightly in the sun.

Contrariwise, my short story ‘The Rat’ focuses on the grit and the dirt, the thieves and the doxies, the runners and the cutpurses. Its in an urban landscape of my imagination, but its a harsher, darker and more dangerous place.

Sometimes, as with film companies, one place stands in for another. I wrote ‘The Library’ setting it in a fictional university on the edge of a fictional town in the Home Counties, but it was consciously based on the college where I went to university, the same sort of buildings, the same general geography, the name of a long-vanished pub still visible in the ceramic tiles of the doorway to a shop. It wasn’t there but it could be, just as Marrakesh can stand in for Cairo, or Vancouver for San Francisco in the filming of movies.

Yet a setting is just a setting, waiting for the story to come along. Without a story, without a plot, the urban landscape you have patiently built up becomes just a series of  documents in a folder, no matter how beautifully imagined and described it might be.

To me, the urban landscape creates a device whereby a narrative can flow through the streets and the parks, the pubs and the shops.

In my unpublished novel ‘To Soar Like Icarus’ the urban landscape is literally the background to us following the young girl Sapphire as she sets out on a mission for her master. We go down the same roads, into the same shops, across the parks, and into the heart of the city with her, or at least in her wake, and we experience what she experiences and feel the heartbeat of the life of that alternate history’s London.

In my novel ‘The Slayer’ (published by the Wolfian Press), we follow the first person narrative with the ‘hero’ Jason Wolfe as he tries to make sense of a world beyond his experience. In the city he finds himself in there are no cars except the giant tank-like behemoths of the rich and the nobility, there are underground railway stations with strange names that hark to a history that is not of his world, events, battles, and famous persons who never were, but who are the most important where he has found himself.

In my unpublished novel to go alongside the soon-to-be-released narrative timeline ‘Tsar Michael The Great‘ we join the characters in a 1950s London not too far-removed from reality, where King’s Cross Station is as King’s Cross Station was, and where The Princess Louise public house stands proud on Holborn. As air raids descend upon the capital, we follow the characters as they make their way through a landscape almost the same as it is today, but where the sights, sounds and context all reflect the backstory to the novel unfolding around them.

And an urban landscape can serve another purpose. It can be a metaphor for something or it can be a device for exploration.

In my short story ‘Writers’ Block’, Nial walks the streets of Lancaster, in this world a Soviet-style city, capital of a dictatorial Britain. The ministries are metaphors within the metaphor, the walk is an attempt to break out from the author’s point of view, it is an exploration through prose of what might otherwise be explored through poetry. But it creates a landscape both stark and memorable in itself, a setting that breaks the rule set out above, for it doesn’t have a story, only a message.

Which leads me to a final use of the urban landscape, in my collection of essays ‘How To Write Alternate History’. Here in ‘A Day In The Life Of’, I take the reader on a journey of questions, designed to flesh out and anchor an alternate history world, not within the pages of a novel, but behind the scenes, in the background, in the backstory.

Here, I ask what is on the wall when the character wakes up, what does his tube of toothpaste look like, what is outside the window of his city flat? We follow the character on a journey of questions – are there booths selling things in the street, what newspapers are advertised on the boards, are the pubs open early, do people spit on the floor, do they eat there or just drink, are there crowds heading for a sporting event at the stadium, and if so what sport is it, what is the team called, how vicious are the rules?

The writer can paint this detail into the background of his urban landscape using what might otherwise be a mind technique, and in writing it down help to firm up those ideas and elements which eventually go into the novel. The journey through the urban landscape can be anything the writer wants to explore – maybe he goes to the park, is it segregated, are there armed police, or nude sunbathers, are people sitting on blankets sipping wine from crystal glasses or are they staggering in debauched high spirits swigging from bottles of beer?


Grey Wolf is an author, poet, photographer and editor currently living in South Wales. He has several books published by the Wolfian Press including ‘The Slayer’ (ISBN 9781492778714) and ‘How to Write Alternate History’ (ISBN 9781490423043). Out later this year is the timeline narrative alternate history book ‘Tsar Michael The Great’.

Grey Wolf is about to launch a new magazine ‘AHF Magazine’ on a quarterly basis from March. If any blogger wishes to submit an article on the art of writing (for whichever genre) ‘AHF Magazine’ would be happy to consider it.

His website is at



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