23 May 2017

Don't Settle on Any Old Setting

I was recently reading a comment on a novel on Amazon in which a reader said that she didn't like books set in fictional towns if the setting plays an important role in the plot. If the setting is important, she wrote, the author should take the time to research and properly use a real place. Not to do so is lazy writing.

Well, that stopped me.

I can think of a number of reasons why an author might choose to use a real place, a fictional place, or a fictional place based on a real place in his/her books. And none of those reasons are lazy reasons. But rather than expound on this point myself, I figured I'd go straight to some author friends who take different approaches to see why they do what they do. In all cases, they chose their settings with care.

Let's start with LynDee Walker's Headlines in High Heels mystery series. It's set in Richmond, Virginia, and features newspaper crime reporter Nichelle Clarke. LynDee lives in Richmond and chose to bring her adopted hometown to life in her books. She loves exploring the city and learning about, and sometimes using, local history as she works to get the details in the books right, she said.

But using a real city can be tricky. "I try to avoid mentioning specific businesses when I can, largely because if a place closes, it dates the book," LynDee said.

And she also doesn't want to make any real businesses look bad. "I get creative with made-up, non-specific, or abandoned public places for body discoveries. I would never put a corpse in the freezer at Capital Ale"--a popular Richmond pub--"or have someone get poisoned in a real restaurant. I don't want to hurt anyone's reputation, even if I am making it all up and it's clearly marked as such."

Sasscer Hill, author of the new Fia McKee mystery series, mostly uses real places in her books too. Doing so adds realism, but it also adds to the workload.

"The difficulty about writing a real place is you must get it right," Sasscer said. "That takes research by phone, internet, and road trips. If you don't carefully check for the accuracy of your setting's description, there are plenty of readers who will be happy to point out that you got it wrong."

Sometimes authors choose to use a made-up setting to avoid making inadvertent mistakes, as well as to avoid angering real people. Maya Corrigan is a good example.

"With a fictional town, I don't have to worry that the place where I set a scene (restaurant, secondhand shop, clothing store), will go out of business before my book is published," said Maya, author of the Five-Ingredient Mysteries series set in a fictional town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Also, with a fictional place, I won't get irate messages from actual town police and county sheriffs because my character interacts with less-than-ideal law enforcers."

These are legitimate reasons for choosing to make up a setting. But with these pros comes the possible con that readers familiar with the area in real life might find it hard to accept the fictional town.

"My main problem with a fictional location is with the interface between it and real places," Maya said. "How long does it take to get from Bayport, which doesn't exist, to Baltimore or Annapolis? I can't leave it vague because timing can be crucial in a mystery. I'm afraid a reader familiar with the area may complain that a twenty-minute drive from some real location will put me in a cornfield or in a real town, not my fictional one."

To avoid Maya's cornfield problem, some authors try to straddle the line. They make up a town to set their series in, but that town is based on a real place. And sometimes the fictional town is set in exactly the same spot on the map as the real one.

Sherry Harris, author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series, sets her books in fictional Ellington, Massachusetts, including the adjacent fictional Fitch Air Force Base. Readers won't recognize these places by name, but they may by description.

"Ellington is based on the real town of Bedford, Massachusetts," Sherry said. "Fitch AFB is based on Hanscom AFB, which adjoins Bedford. Anyone familiar with Bedford or Hanscom will recognize places they know in the books. But by making a town fictional, I can move things around, add things, and change how buildings look as needed."

As any author knows, being able to manipulate the setting can be important. But it also can be dicey.

"People are very proud of their towns. Moving things around can cause outrage," Sherry said. "By fictionalizing Bedford I can add businesses, rearrange the base a bit, while staying true to the real versions. I wouldn't want a murderer to work at a real place and have the real place take offense (or legal action). I do use real places in the books, though. Sarah goes to Concord, Lexington, Bedford, and Boston."

Barbara Ross took a similar approach with her Maine Clambake mystery series, set in fictional Busman's Harbor, Maine, which is based on Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Barbara chose to create a town based on a real one "because I wanted to move some things around, borrow some shops and restaurants from nearby towns. The pros are that when I need a new business downtown, like a frame shop or a jeweler, I can add it to my Main Street without any worry. The con is, I am sure the bookstores and libraries in my town and other nearby towns could attract even more readers if I used the name of the real town."

So in Barbara's case, we see the author choosing to fictionalize a real setting in order to enable her storytelling to work better.

Sasscer Hill took that approach with two specific settings in her first series about a jockey in Maryland.

"Shepherds Town was based on Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia, and Dimsboro was based on the old Marlborough Racetrack in Upper Marlboro, Maryland," she said. "Charles Town racetrack was significantly upgraded and rebuilt while I was writing my stories, and I wanted to write it the way it was, not the way it became. The old Marlborough Track, before it was torn down, had turned into the seedy training track I describe as Dimsboro. I didn't want to anger people who had fond, nostalgic memories of Marlborough Racetrack before it went downhill."

Jack Getze, author of the Austin Carr series, also relishes the freedom of writing a fictional town based on real places. "My fictional Branchtown is based on several towns near the ocean in central Jersey--Red Bank, Eatontown, Long Branch, Rumson, Sea Bright. My characters say bad things about a few of the local police and other authorities, much of the criticism based on real lawsuits and criminal trials. I figured I'd skip the chance of libel," Jack said. Plus "I like the 'feel' of my Branchtown encompassing all these different areas. Different kinds of people. [...] I wanted the fictional [town] to sound like one single town, not a conglomeration, and thus the wrong streets are in the right locations, and the police and fire houses are where I need them to be for my story."

And these are all excellent reasons why authors choose their settings. Whether their books are set in actual places, completely fictional places, or fictional places based on real ones, these authors all chose their settings with care. And that's really what's important when writing fiction. When making the decision of when to use real places and when to make them up, the goal should be serving the story. In the end, that serves the reader.

So, dear reader, do you have any books with settings that you find memorable? And are they real places, fictional, or fictional places based on real ones? Please share in the comments.


  1. Fiction location = lazy writing? Baloney.

    While most of my writing is set in New Orleans (a real city that is often unreal), I set stories in fictional locations. Setting is not just a place or a time period; it is the feeling of the place and the time period. It comprises all conditions of place — region, geography, neighborhood, buildings, interiors, climate, weather, time of day, season of year. But it doesn’t have to be a real place. We’re talking fiction here.

    It’s as hard to create a fictional location as researching a real one. I’ve done both.

    I don’t think the person who said creating a fiction place is lazy writing has read any good science-fiction. The person should read Frank Herbert’s DUNE. Talk about setting.

  2. I think people who insist on totally accurate place details should be reading non-fiction. I think most fictional towns are indeed inspired by real places, or as in the case of much of my work, a mash up of several real places, but retooled to suit the design of the story.

  3. Oddly enough, I think only one story I've ever written was fictional - "The Far End of Nowhere" in FISH OUT OF WATER. Everything else has been real.

    I don't know why. Wait, yes I do. I like using the history and feel of a location to enhance a story. Like others, I don't drop bodies in real businesses though. I don't want to hurt the business or offend anyone. So I either make up places or use ones that don't exist any more (like in "Home Front Homicide").

    Public spaces are fair game (parks, courthouses, etc.).

    Whether you make up a place or use an existing place you have to research, so I don't think either one is a "lazy" option.

    Mary/Liz Milliron

  4. Thought-provoking post, Barb.

    Lazy writing my...foot.

    I use central Connecticut for my Zach Barnes series because I live there and it's easy to drive around to check details, but I often change them anyway. Nothing bad ever happens in a real restaurant or place of business, for example. But I do use a restaurant that has changed ownership/names three times since it first appeared in an early book. Oops.

    I tend to use real street names and landmarks, but not with precise accuracy. Some of my readers tell me they enjoy knowing the area. They also like knowing the history of the area, and greater Hartford has a rich history stretching back nearly 400 years, even though it gets much less use than the big metro areas like NYC, LA, Detroit (my other series), or Boston, to name a few.

    Roller derby really doesn't exist in New Britain, CT, but I put the rink in a real former Caldor/Walmart that is vacant...and would be a perfect venue. If the roller girls DID come to town, I think they'd be a huge hit, too.

    Making all this stuff up and still staying consistent with the personality of the area is real work, not lazy writing.

  5. I use a fictional town - Laskin, South Dakota - that is set in the same place as a real town. The South Dakotans who read my stories can easily figure out where it is (I put some clues in), but this way they can deny everything to their out of state friends. (And to each other, BTW.) I know where (almost) everything is in Laskin, and I've managed to keep it fairly consistent, thanks to a list and a mental map.

  6. I've written both real and fictional towns and both are equally as hard. I have an old manuscript set in a fictional town in West Virginia. I had to draw a map because I couldn't keep straight what was where. In a real town, you at least have some knowledge of the geography.

    My Brewing Trouble series is set in Pittsburgh, so I am very familiar with the neighborhoods and geography. I used a real street in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, but invented an entire block and placed it on the real street. If anyone is looking for Max's brewpub or the Cupcakes N'at bakery, they won't find them. So far, readers have been happy with that.

  7. Nice post here! Great perspectives from these writers--glad to hear you all talking on this subject.

    I had a friend, a historian, who seemed befuddled by the idea that writers could set fictional works in actual places... since the things they were writing about didn't actually happen in those places. It stopped me short too, that comment, and others like it, readers zeroing in on the specifics of a place, where small deviations occur, or where whole settings are created. You've done a good job--the group here--of explaining many of those points, countering arguments. Nice.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by. I'm glad we all agree that equating a fictional setting with lazy writing isn't right. Authors who do it right, who take the time to bring their settings to life and get the details right, can use a real place or not as works for the story. The key is that the setting works. It helps bring the story alive, and that involves not just the buildings but, as O'Neil said, the climate, geography--everything that makes a place an actual place (even if it's fictional).

    It wouldn't surprise me if most authors don't include elements of real places in their fictional settings, Janice, as you do. It's sort of like including characteristics of different people you know when you create a fictional character. You take your sister's stubbornness and your brother's tenacity and mix them together to create a brand new fictional person. I wonder if people who live in a town that is the basis for a made-up town ever read the books and think, hmmm, this feels familiar. I guess it depends on how much real-life detail is kept.

    I wonder if the reviewer who sparked this blog has had the unfortunate experience of reading many books with badly incorporated settings. Perhaps she longs for real places because the fictional places she's read don't come alive on the page. Because if they did, she hopefully would be singing a different tune. As Mary said, if the author does sufficient research, the setting should come across as real, and that's really what's important.

    Steve, your comment about driving around to get the details right reminds me of a story I once heard. Two ladies went to Baltimore with a map, determined to find all of the settings in Laura Lippman's books. A bookseller had to kindly let them know that a lot of those places didn't actually exist. Lippman's Baltimore was real, but not every location in it. This story shows that Lippman did it right, because she made her city feel so real that these readers thought everyplace in her books had to be real too. Anyway, I hope you do get roller derby in that vacant Walmart. It sounds fun.

    Eve, denial, denial, denial. Thanks for the laugh.

    And Eve and Joyce, the idea of making a map of a fictional town is a good one, especially if you have a series in mind. But make it in pencil. (A mental map, Eve? You must have a better memory than I do.) I once heard Julia Spencer-Fleming say that her fictional small town in the Adirondacks has grown bigger and bigger with each book because she keeps having to add things to it. Joyce, I like the idea of dropping a fictional block in the middle of a real one. Talk about making a real place come to life.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Art. I wonder how your friend reacts to big-concept thrillers--ones set in the White House, for instance, but with a fictional president. Perhaps something like that might be easier to handle than an ordinary real place, like in Joyce Tremel's series, having a fictional block added to it.

  10. Steve was spot on when he said, "Making all this stuff up and still staying consistent with the personality of the area is real work, not lazy writing." I wonder if the person who said that to you, Barb, ever read Gone With the Wind. Did they think Tara was an actual plantation?

  11. Interesting post, Barb. I think it's also important for settings-within-settings to at least seem real, whether or not they're completely fictional. If I read an academic mystery, for example, I'm usually less interested in the town or city than in the college. Unless I have a particular interest in the city or town, what matters most to me is that the college is described realistically. If professors have luxurious offices and private secretaries, I'm going to be laughing so much that I may not be able to focus on the mystery.

  12. Interesting post, Barb. I think the responses prove that the original reader question was a little silly, or at least, uninformed about how books get written. For myself, my current books are set in Brooklyn, NY- very real! - so I have to get it right. Still, it is big enough so i can be a bit fictional, or at least, unspecific, about a certain block. My first book, decades ago, was set in a lightly disguised version of my home town.Someone I worked with, who did not know I grew up there, asked me if I had ever been there! So the disguise was very, very light. Deliberate, as I wanted it to use the real, specific details to create a real seeming place, but still wanted to be able to say it was fiction.

  13. I often mixed reality and imagination when creating locations on a grand scale, but I don't often do so on a small scale.

    For example, nearly every story in which a character lives in a one-bedroom apartment, they're living in my Chicago apartment from many years ago; in nearly every story in which a character lives in a brick ranch, they live in the home I owned for several years in Waco; in nearly every story in which a character lives in a two-story home, it's the home where I lived with my parents in Tacoma.

    In this way, I always know which hallways lead to which rooms, where the oven is in relation to the fridge, whether the bathrooms have showers or tubs, and so on.

  14. It just occurred to me that both my stand-alone novels are set in fictionalized versions of real places, too. The stories were inspired by real events, and both involved people I actually knew, so it seemed better to change names rather than deal with possible hurt feelings...and potential lawsuits. Postcards of the Hanging is in Ojibway, Michigan, based on Saginaw, where I grew up, and Stonebury, CT is a reimagined New Britain, where I taught.

    At least one of Dennis Lehane's books has the disclaimer that he's using Boston but changing the geography to help the plot.

    I'm surprised how many readers seem to have an issue with this, but, as always, this discussion is teaching me a lot.

  15. I think Steve was right when he talked about an author capturing the personality of a place. Those details have to be right (weather, people, architecture) but the specifics ( particular buildings or businesses) don't for me to love a setting.
    One setting I love is Louise Penny's Three Pines - I hope it's real because I'd love to visit.

  16. You mean Tara isn't a real plantation, Sasscer?!

    Bonnie, your comment about getting the details right reminds me of a TV show set in a newsroom perhaps 15 years ago. I was talking with a friend about it--we both used to work at the same newspaper--and I asked why TV couldn't ever portray reporters' jobs correctly. And he said, "You want to watch a show with reporters talking on the phone and taking notes, or sitting in meetings and taking notes?" He had a point there. Sometimes what's real isn't interesting. But that's plot. Setting, those details should come easier.

    Triss, yes, I agree. I think if you use a real place with its real name, you most likely will have to come up with some fictional spots in that city or town in order for your story to work and for you not to get sued. It's unrealistic to expect a fiction author to use a completely non-fictional setting, especially if that author doesn't want to have bad things happen in real places.

    Michael, I use real places too in my head when I write fiction. I've written a number of Thanksgiving stories, and every meal is served in the dining room of the house I grew up in. And I wrote a recent story set in a law firm, and parts of it are set in the firm I used to work in. You're correct that using a real-life model allows for an easy shorthand to remember where everything in the place is. (Indeed, it's funny that when I talk to or even think about friends who still work at the firm, I picture them in their old offices, even though I know the firm has switched buildings since then.)

    Shari, I wish I could go to Three Pines too. Let me know when you're going to check if it's real. I call shotgun!

  17. Yes, Sasscer Hill - " Did they think Tara was an actual plantation?"

    Which reminds me of the great opening line of Daphne Du Maurier's REBECCA - "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again." Fictional location. Fictional people. Real emotions. Didn't William Faulkner tells us to write about the human heart in conflict with itself? He said nothing about it has to be in a real place. Yoknapatawpha County may have been inspired by a real place, but it does not exisit. OK, it does because of Faulkner.


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