09 September 2014

The Places You've Never Been

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?


  1. Thought-provoking. I've been to Santa Teresa many, many times with Kinsey. Other frequent places to visit have been William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and, of course, Stephen King's Castle Rock.

  2. Trollope's Barchester; and, later, Angela Thirkell's Barchester; Miss Read's Fairacre; Tolkein's Middle Earth, especially the Shire and Lothlorien; and many more...

  3. Arrow (television show on the CW) takes place in Starling City and the poorer adjacent town, the Glades.

  4. As a former resident of Santa Barbara I can say with certainty that Santa Teresa is one and the same. She even uses some street names that are real.

    McBain refers to Riverhead a lot in his novels, which as you know is a town on Long Island, but as far as I know that's as far as it goes. Not enough description to tell if there is a relationship.

    I have used my hometown, a (very) small town on LI, as well as my adopted home town, another small one in Southern California, in some stories. I imagine most of us do as it makes it easy to establish a setting for our stories

  5. grin - Land's End...where my Rowena Through the Wall books are set. It's southern England...but it's not. Different history, but you'd swear you were walking near Salisbury or west to Shropshire. And maybe gazing at the sea in Cornwall.
    In my case, I wanted it to be familiar, but... a little different.
    Rowena walks through her classroom wall into a world that looks like Saxon England. Damn, I want to go there.

  6. The way Melodie tells it, so would I. And I'd like to visit Never, Neverland.

    I'm working on Palmetto Beach, Florida. Palmetto also happens to be the designation of one flavor of cockroach.

    I like using the names of towns that have come and gone. In a fraud tutorial I wrote for SleuthSayers, I used Beaver Meadow, Indiana, which apparently had a couple of houses until the Great Depression. For some reason, this now non-town is still honored with a road sign. All that's missing is Pop. 0.

  7. Need I mention a locale from my childhood, Metropolis? (The Perry White one, not the Fritz Lang one.)

  8. In honor of my deceased mother, an aficionado of Murder She Wrote, I'd mention Cabot Cove, Maine.

    For myself, I'd mention a truly mysterious town: Brigadoon. Or perhaps Germelshausen instead. lol

  9. I actually wrote about Edge of Night at CB. It was the only one of my grandmother's stories, as she called the soap operas, that i enjoyed. Later it was written by Henry Slesar, a great mystery writer.

    My friend Jo Dereske has written a dozrn novels about librarian Mss Zukas, who lives in Bellehaven Washington. (The best known neighborhood in the real Bellingham is Fairhaven.).

    Don't forget Trekkersberg, South Africa, where James McClure' intrepid cops Kramer and Zondi fought crime and their bosses. And WIlliam Marshall's Yellowthread Street mysteries are set in the nonexistant Hong Bay district of Hong Kong.

    And I'm surprised I beat Dale to Wrightsville in the Ellery Queen novels!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>