27 January 2015

What's In a Place

by Jim Winter

If you've been following along at home, you know I'm fascinating by setting, particularly fictional cities. Done right, a place that never existed can be as real as where the reader is sitting and have just as much history.

Often, when cities are created for a story, you're almost hit over the head with it. DC Comics had a long time, though, to flesh out Metropolis and Gotham City. Notice that the show is called Gotham, and they seldom use the name "Gotham City" in dialog. But what makes two cities full of superheroes and costumed psychopaths as real as, say, New York or Peoria, Illinois or even Redding, California, up in the redwoods?

There's a sense of place and identity about those fictitious towns. Gotham, for instance, has a geography. Some river empties out into another river or a lake or the Atlantic, forming "The Narrows." Bruce Wayne probably lives in a place north of the city that looks suspiciously like Atlanta's Buckheads. And there are nightclubs, restaraunts, and city landmarks that get recycled and repurposed with every incarnation of Batman and its spin-offs. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's films and the new TV series, Gotham looks a lot like a place you can go to.

Contrast that with the typical comic book or movie device of hitting you over the head with a city's unreality. It's always something-"City." Very few large urban centers are actually called that.

"But, Jim, what about Mexico City?"

Glad you asked that. It's an Americanism. We call it either Mexico City or Ciudad de Mejico because, English or Spanish, it's hard to differentiate between the city of Mexico (and that's all actual Mexicans call it) and the country.

There are exceptions, of course. But often, when I hear something like "Bay City" or, pulling from the soaps, "Genoa City" (Really, Young and the Restless writers? You couldn't just call it "Genoa"?), I hear "Fake." It worked on Battlestar Galactica because, like Mexico, the city of Caprica needs to be differentiated from the planet Caprica if you don't live there. Genoa City sounds like lazy writing. (And in the soaps' defense, they do have to crank out at least 260 scripts a year.)

But what really makes these places real?

Well, let's look at my personal favorite nonexistent town, Isola, a borough of... McBain spares us a lame name for his City. It's just The City, just like every urban center you've ever been to. From the first 87th Precinct onward, you get a sense of the city's geography (including the only two rivers in America that flow west into the Atlantic), history (often lifted from New York's own), and landmarks. Grover Park is not Central Park. Diamondback is the roughest neighborhood in Isola. You have to take a ferry to Bethtown. And I'm still not sure where the Alexander Hamilton Bridge goes.

McBain sprinkled just enough of these little details into the series to make Isola and its fellow "sections" real to you. You can almost picture the drive upstate to Castleview Prison.

But even better at making a town real is Stephen King. I've been to those little stores in Castle Rock and played in a place that looks a lot like Derry's Barrens. And then there are the backstories. If you lived in small towns dependent on a nearby city for its media (like I did living near Cleveland as a kid), you know the ebb and flow. You know certain places are going to get mentioned in the news and in conversation. You remember a sheriff very much like Alan Pangborn, and you know what happened at your high school happened in Derry. King takes the common experiences we all have, good and bad, and creates a Maine that does not exist but looks so much like the real one that you can't miss it. Oh, and there's a monster in there somewhere, like a clown that eats children or aliens messing with your head or something. The horror is almost secondary. Almost.

And finally, the history is often important. Street names and neighborhoods and landmarks take their names from people you don't remember. Here in Cincinnati, there is a William Howard Taft Road, named for the city's most famous president, and a lot of things called Hudepohl and St. Clair. Until the stadiums were built, a Pete Rose Way ran from Sawyer Point to the grungy barge docks that begin the city's West Side. Many streets are named for Civil War heroes who came from here, for meat-packing moguls like Buddig and Morrell, Procter & Gamble executives long dead before the current management was born, and sometimes, just somebody who helped layout the town.

McBain and King include these things, and I think it's the most important aspect of creating a fictional town. If you know a little about its history, you get an idea what to name things and where to put them.

It helps the reader live there with you, even if it's in both your heads.


  1. The key to understanding Isola's gegraphy , of course, is to tip Manhattan on its rght side. Harlem is north, Diamondback is east. One thing i loved about those books is that McBain wuld occasionally have a character mention New York City. I aways felt a jolt. Oh right! This is a different place.

    Speaking of soap operas when i was a kid my grandmother would watch The Edge of Nght, the one mystery-based soap. It was set in Monticello but occasionally a character wuld have to rush off to the state capital, which was....Capital City. Even as a kid i rolled my eyes at that one.

  2. Panama City leapt to mind, thinking about the difference of Mexico and Mexico City. But I can never distinguish between El Salvador and San Salvador. Which is which? Eve might be tempted to mention Rapid City.

    The thing I liked about the DC Metropolis and Gotham City was the art deco look, both modern and not at once. Construction must have been constant, thanks to constant super-villain wreckage.

    I seem to recall Mark Twain created settings that appealed to me as a kid, rivers and caves and castles. So did H. Rider Haggard’s Africa, although his writing style appealed less to me as an adult. As a kid, I read a number of deep sea stories and those settings seemed real to me reading them in an Indiana orchard.

    Writers that take historical settings (ancient Rome, Egypt, Britain and Italy in the Middle Ages) often draw my admiration, whether individual writers focus on the grit and stench or ignore it altogether.

  3. I get asked this a lot in my college class: should we use fictional settings or real settings in our fiction? I tell them it depends on what you need. Sometimes a real place won't fit your plot. But to create a fictional place, you need to be very good at building atmosphere without long descriptions of setting that slow the plot.
    Interesting post!

  4. I think the key is to know the place - whether it's real or not - so well that you walk its streets and go to its parks and see its houses. If it's real to you, it'll be real to others.

  5. Interesting post! Another fictional town that grew over the course of many books was Ellery Queen's Wrightsville. A fascinating capsule of its history is collected at one of the (many) web pages that comprise Kurt Sercu's Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction.

    I love the way King develops his imaginary towns, and the way the characters sometimes pop up in different works -- particularly those ties between It and 11/22/63.

  6. As for whether or not I think you’re actually right, concerning the idea that King creates realistic fictional towns, all I can say is: I AIN'T GONNA DRIVE ANYWHERE NEAR SALEM'S LOT -- AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME! ESPECIALLY ON A DARK, SNOWY NIGHT! NOT EVEN WITH A CARLOAD OF CRUCIFIXES!

  7. Oh, and Leigh, the way I remember that El Salvador is the country, is that we always called it "El-Sal" when I was in SF.


  8. I'm with you, Dixon - I'm staying the hell away from Salem's Lot FOREVER.


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