by Jim Winter
I will be revising a novel I'd been working on forever soon. Which is going to be fun. It takes place in a city in Ohio called Monticello. Monticello came about as an exercise in world building. I can tell you the history of the place, who all the landmarks are named for, and that, if you own a Passat or a Jetta, it wasn't built there.
If the name sounds familiar beyond the reference to Thomas Jefferson's estate, I admit I lifted it. Once upon a time, when I was much shorter, there was a soap opera called Edge of Night. Like Dark Shadows, Edge was genre-based rather than hospital melodrama like most other soaps. Unlike Dark Shadows, it was a crime show. Set in a city called Monticello, the series existed in a Midwestern state so generic that it's capital was Capital City. The skyline in the opening credits was actually Cincinnati, home of Procter & Gamble which produced the show. (Except for its final two seasons, when LA was used.) But it's not the only fictional city that crime aficionados have adopted.
Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhonne lives in Santa Teresa, which looks suspiciously like Santa Barbara. While Santa Teresa does not exist, Kinsey shares the town with another PI, Lew Archer. That should be no surprise. Archer's creator Ross McDonald also used the name for a fictionalized Santa Barbara. And Grafton did know McDonald in his later years. Santa Teresa is so real, thanks to Grafton, that many people look for it while driving down Highway 101. Read enough of the novels, and you can see downtown and the seedy Hungarian restaurant where Kinsey would be treated to goulash.
Take it a step further. Hill Street Blues, the classic police show from the 1980's, took place in a city even more generic than Edge of Night's fictional state. It had a Major League baseball team, but even the team was never named. Still, the city was quintessentially Midwest without looking like a thinly disguised LA or Chicago (or Toronto, which has doubled for several American cities.) It's amazing how Hill Street made its city look so real without giving any clue as to where it was.
But the mack daddy of fictional towns?
That would be Ed McBain's Isola. Many people assume Isola is the name of McBain's fictitious city, but actually, it's a borough (a word McBain never uses) roughly analogous to Manhattan. The City is and yet is not New York. Indeed, many 87th Precinct movies have been shot in, and sometimes set in, New York. Yet the precinct, even the other boroughs, have distinct characters all their own. One wonders if the City is sandwiched between Metropolis and Gotham City.
What makes a fictional city real to a reader? A sense of place. When neighborhoods and landmarks are described as though the author might have lived there, it makes the setting a character unto itself. Similarly, giving a fictional place a history gives it a life of its own. There's a reason certain names pop up on streets, schools, and landmarks. The reader may never know why, but if the writer does, it creates a sort of randomness that's hard to duplicate otherwise.
So where is your favorite place you've never been?