06 October 2018

A Whole Town--Imagine That

by John M. Floyd



How important, one might ask (especially if one is a beginning writer), is setting? Well, most of those reading this blog know the answer. It depends on the story. For some movies, novels, shorts, etc., setting is vital; to others, not so much. Everyone seems to agree that it's usually not as all-important as other elements of fiction, which is why so much more is said and written about character and plot. But I don't want to downplay it. There's no question that an effective setting can be a huge advantage in works of fiction, and can often be the thing that makes an otherwise mediocre story good, or a good story great.

Which made me start thinking about towns and cities in fiction--and, specifically, the names of towns and cities. Some of these imaginary places are immediately familiar to readers, TV watchers, and moviegoers: Mayberry, Metropolis, Gotham City, Castle Rock, Lake Wobegon, Emerald City, Cabot Cove, and so on.

A Peyton Place to call home

Many of the western novels of the late mystery-writer Robert B. Parker (and Robert Knott, the author who continued that series after Parker's death) even have the same titles as their town-names: Appaloosa, Brimstone, Resolution, Revelation, Bull River, etc. The same is true of other titles in novels/movies/TV, like Salem's Lot, Lonesome DoveSpencerville, Desperation, Zootopia, Camelot, Silverado, Evening ShadeKnott's LandingSouth Park, Empire Falls, Pleasantville, and Twin Peaks.


I've done some of that myself, with my short stories. Sometimes I liked my town's name so much (Turtle Bay, Redemption, Sand Hill, Mythic Heights) that I already knew I also wanted to use it as a title, even before I started writing. In other cases I wrote the entire piece before ever giving a name to the town where my characters lived and worked. This happened with my story "Dentonville," which appeared in EQMM several years ago and wound up winning a Derringer Award. I wrote the story without a firm title in mind, finished the story, and only then--when I was still having trouble coming up with a suitable title--decided to call the town Dentonville, and thus gave it double duty as both a title and a setting.

Some novel/movie titles, of course, are the names of real towns and cities. Casablanca, Deadwood, Tombstone, Fargo, Nashville, Atlantic City, Rio BravoCentennial, Rome, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, Elizabethtown, Munich, Dallas, and so on. And some towns that you might think are fictional--like Little House on the Prairie's Walnut Grove or The Martian Chronicles' Green Bluff--are also real places. So that works, too. But . . .

We got trouble, right here in River City

. . . there's a certain freedom, I think, to giving your fictional characters a fictional home. For one thing, it lets you paint that town any way you like, and doesn't restrict you to the way real places are, or the way they look.

Besides, making up fictional town names is fun. Example: I'm currently reading Joe Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard" novels, in order. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine live near the imaginary town of LaBorde, Texas, but in the book I'm reading now, the fifth in the series, they're about to drive up to Hootie Hoot, Oklahoma, to help a friend of theirs get out of a jam. I doubt I'd find Hootie Hoot on Google Maps, and though I don't know for sure, I suspect Lansdale had a big smile on his face when he came up with that name. He might've laughed out loud.

Another upside to these made-up names is that if you're writing police procedurals, fictional towns have fictional police departments, which might be able to operate (within reason) a bit differently than one in a real city. The downside to dreaming up town-names instead of using real ones, of course, is that real-life cities contain real-life streets and parks and buildings and landmarks that might make your story more believable--and can also allow you (if you live there, or nearby) to "write what you know." So, as with most things in life, there are pluses and minuses to consider.

But don't consider them right now. For now, here's a list I've put together of fifty more fictional towns. Many of them you'll recognize right away, but I'm hoping some might surprise you, or maybe trigger a fond memory.



Bus stops on the make-believe map:

Maycomb, Alabama -- To Kill a Mockingbird
Haddonfield, Illinois -- Halloween
Bedford Falls -- It's a Wonderful Life
Hadleyville -- High Noon
Rock Ridge -- Blazing Saddles
Clanton, Mississippi -- A Time to Kill 
Radiator Springs -- Cars
Amity -- Jaws
Greenbow, Alabama -- Forrest Gump
West Egg, New York -- The Great Gatsby
Innisfree, Ireland -- The Quiet Man
The Capitol -- The Hunger Games
Bon Temps, Louisiana -- True Blood 
Arlen, Texas -- King of the Hill
North Fork -- The Rifleman
Santa Mira, California -- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
King's Landing -- Game of Thrones
Wolf City, Wyoming -- Cat Ballou
Perfection, Nevada -- Tremors
Mystic Falls, Virginia -- The Vampire Diaries
Dillon, Texas -- Friday Night Lights
Pawnee, Indiana -- Parks and Recreation
Cuesta Verde, California -- Poltergeist
Sparta, Mississippi -- In the Heat of the Night
Bayport -- the Hardy Boys series
River Heights -- the Nancy Drew series
Cloud City -- The Empire Strikes Back
Derry, Maine -- several Stephen King novels
Rivendell -- The Lord of the Rings
Avonlea -- Anne of Green Gables
New Caprica City -- Battlestar Galactica
Mayfield -- Leave It to Beaver
Charming, California -- Sons of Anarchy
Hogsmeade -- the Harry Potter series
Isola -- the 87th Precinct novels, Ed McBain
Kurtal, Switzerland -- Third Man on the Mountain
Collinsport, Maine -- Dark Shadows
Fairview -- Desperate Housewives
Orbit City -- The Jetsons
Pandora -- Avatar
Hooterville -- Petticoat Junction and Green Acres
Cicely, Alaska -- Northern Exposure
Hawkins, Indiana -- Stranger Things
Silver City, Mississippi -- The Ponder Heart
Sunnydale, California -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Bedrock -- The Flintstones
Santa Teresa, California -- Sue Grafton's alphabet series
Aintry, Georgia -- Deliverance
Hill Valley, California -- Back to the Future

And my all-time favorite:

Bikini Bottom -- Spongebob Squarepants



Questions:

As a writer, what works for you? Do you usually create your own town/city names, or do you install your characters in real-life locations? As a reader, which do you prefer? Does it matter? Have you ever used the name of your fictional (or real) city as the title of your story or novel?

Or do you give a Hootie Hoot?

See you again in two weeks …

19 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

You ask, "As a writer, what works for you?"

Depends.

My New Orleans novels are stong on setting with accurate descriptions of real places. I named ever chapter for a street, avenue or park in my first few novels and set action there. Got a good response from New Orleanians.

Recently I wrote a novel set in the Caribbean. I was going to use Saint Lucia for the setting but no matter how much research I did, it wasn't working so I made up an island which gave the book its title (and theme): SAINT LOLITA.

My historical mysteries set in New Orleans are difficult but enough research gets me by. New Orleans changes street names often. My most recent challenge is setting a Gilded Age novel in a northern state. We did not have a Gilded Age in most of the south. We had Reconstruction. I needed a small town where I could not screw up the details, so I made up one.

Still, setting is important. Getting the sights, sounds, smells, atmosphere, flora, fauna and so many variables correct is daunting but I seem to manage. Elmore Leonard teaches us to not get bogged down with details.

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun piece, John. A lot of my work is set in L.A. or at least Southern California. And in some ways I see L.A. as another character in the stories. I feel like the real locations help to anchor things in the real world. But within that real world I sometimes make up a restaurant or other location. On the other hand, I often use real places. It depends what's going to happen there.

And, while I do write a lot about L.A., I have set things in other places, St. Louis, Maury's Piers in New Jersey and other places. And it is nice to be able to write about other places sometimes -- it's almost like taking a vacation. And I noticed you mentioned Mayfield. That sounds like a peaceful place to hang for a while...as long as Eddie H. doesn't pop your tires or something ;-) .

John Floyd said...

O'Neil, I actually thought of you when I was writing this, because New Orleans is such a big part of much of your work. Your detailed, firsthand knowledge of the city is a huge plus, I think, to your N.O. stories and novels. (And yes, we can all learn from Elmore Leonard.) Thanks for your insight, on this.

Paul, I too see L.A. as a character in your work, just as New Orleans is, in a lot of O'Neil's. And yes, the real locations can be a plus, not only to residents but to others who have visited or read a lot about the city and the area. But I'm glad to hear you say you also feel the freedom to add fictional places to your "real" setting now and then, depending on the needs of the plot. (Good old Eddie Haskell--if that series had a villain, I guess it would've been Eddie.)

Thanks, guys, for your thoughts on this.

Barb Goffman said...

I usually figure out where approximately my story will be set on a map, be it southeast Virginia or Maine. My actual location will be fictional to make the writing easier, but I'll strive to get regionalisms correct and details like sunrise time. This week, for instance, I checked whether someone in my fictional town in southern Virginia would order iced tea, sweet tea, or simply tea. There are other times I use actual town names, but in those cases, I typically don't need a lot of setting detail, which is important because I wouldn't want to get something wrong. (Though I have made up public officials such as prosecutors in otherwise real places. I hope the real people in those spots give me a pass.)

John Floyd said...

Barb, a plus to all this is that researching that kind of thing is usually fun. And yes, I like the idea of using a real town name but not going into a lot of detail otherwise. I've probably been about half-and-half, on using real towns vs. fictional towns--and the real towns I've used are often places that I know pretty well.

And yes, I also think (or I like to hope) that people in the real towns aren't too hard on us when we make mistakes.

Thanks for the insights.

Melodie Campbell said...

Where possible, I use real places that I know well. Sometimes I disguise the name (Dunnville becomes Mudville). But I get a kick out of setting most of my novels in Steeltown, aka The Hammer, real name Hamilton. You can smell the steel plants just going over the huge suspension bridge from Hamilton to Burlington. Once experienced, never forgotten. "We consider smog a condiment," says my mob heroine, Gina Gallo.

I think where novice writers make mistakes is in setting their stories in "Anyville" USA, so that the place has no real character. My students tell me it's easier to do that, because they don't have to know the place or research anything. I remind them "Setting is Character," meaning you should make your setting *live and breathe*, just like a character does.

Michael Bracken said...

"Quarryville, Texas," which appears in The Private Eye Writers of America Presents: Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora, is the only story I can recall where I created a fictional town and then used the town's name for the story title.

Creating Quarryville turned out to be a good idea. I've set two additional stories there—"Smoked" (Noir at the Salad Bar, reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018) and "Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile" (Shhh...Murder!). I've also written several other stories in which a scene or two take place in Quarryville and several more stories that take place in surrounding towns.

So, creating Quarryville led to the creation of an entire region of West Texas. I don't see an end to the number of semi-related stories I can set in the area, and I suspect someday I'll have written enough of them to fill a collection of West Texas stories set in and around Qyarryville.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

A great list of fictional towns! My Kim Reynolds mysteries, the last one being THE BAD WIFE, are each set in Wilson Township, NJ which bears a striking resemblance to the town we lived in for forty years. I think basing the setting of a mystery on a place a writer knows well adds an aura of reality and authenticity.

John Floyd said...

Melodie, I love Gina Gallo's description of smog. And also, your suggestion that writers treat setting as a character. It really IS a character, in many of the novels and stories I like the most.

Sounds as if Quarryville DID turn out to be a good idea, Michael. And West Texas is an interesting place anyhow.

Thanks, Jacqueline. Like you, I like to choose fictional towns that resemble those I'm already familiar with, if possible. Sort of gives you the best of both worlds.

I appreciate the comments, folks. Keep up the good work!

Eve Fisher said...

My favorite is Poisonville - Hammett's Red Harvest.
I like both fictional towns and real towns for settings. I mean, if you're going to set something in urban California or urban Louisiana, you just about have to use LA or New Orleans. But the intermediate and the small towns can be all your own.

John Floyd said...

Good thought, Eve. And I can't believe I left out Poisonville. As for LA and New Orleans, they're both unique enough and interesting enough to be featured as they really are. (San Francisco, too.)

Something we haven't talked about is the fact that you can fictionalize parts of real towns, and go half-and-half, in a way. (Let's hear it for poetic license!)

Leigh Lundin said...

John, that's one comprehensive list. I recall a television program with Eerie, Indiana, but I can't say I watched it.

Little Storping on the Swuff in the Avengers was not a place you'd want to visit. Twin Peaks was slyly named.

Was the town in Shirley Jackson's The Lottery (and similar stories) named? HP Lovecraft er, lovingly crafted an entire region in Massachusetts, centered around the towns of Arkham and Innsmouth.

Damn, when I started to write this, I had another in mind, which totally escapes me now.

John Floyd said...

Hi Leigh!

I think Eerie, Indiana, was actually a TV show back in the 80s or 90s, about spooky happenings in a town of the same name. I'll look it up. And I don't think the town in Jackson's story "The Lottery" was named. (But it was sure memorable.)

I didn't know about (or had forgotten) the town you mentioned in The Avengers. That's the best town name of all.

Earl Staggs said...

I've handled setting three different ways, John. First, I've written stories set in Baltimore and Ocean City, Maryland. I spent most of my life in that beautiful state, and knew both those cities well enough that I could describe them with accuracy. Second, I've placed my fictional female sheriff in the fictional county of Watango, Texas, for a number of stories. I chose to make up a fictional county so I could give it whatever details and features the story needed. Third, I have some stories set in the Middle East and felt it best to use real cities and areas to give the stories credibility. I relied on my friend Google for the details I needed. I guess you could say when I comes to settings, I go by the one true rule of writing: Whatever works best.

Earl Staggs said...


I've handled setting three different ways, John. First, I've written stories set in Baltimore and Ocean City, Maryland. I spent most of my life in that beautiful state, and knew both those cities well enough that I could describe them with accuracy. Second, I've placed my fictional female sheriff in the fictional county of Watango, Texas, for a number of stories. I chose to make up a fictional county so I could give it whatever details and features the story needed. Third, I have some stories set in the Middle East and felt it best to use real cities and areas to give the stories credibility. I relied on my friend Google for the details I needed. I guess you could say when I comes to settings, I go by the one true rule of writing: Whatever works best.

Robert Lopresti said...

Funny thing. I have written a piece about making up places which I am about to offer to Trace Evidence, the blog of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The reason is that the November issue of AHMM will feature "A Bad Day For Algebra Tests," my third story set in fictional Brune County.

One of my favorite fictional place names: After Jay Cronley, an Oklahoma City sports writer, wrote two hilarious crime novels that obviously owed a lot to Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels, Westlake returned the favor in DROWNED HOPES by sending Dortmunder to a miserable ghost town: Cronley, Oklahoma.

joshpac said...

Yet another thought-provoking piece, John. I enjoy setting my work in foreign climes. Eight of my ten Mahboob Chaudri stories were set in Bahrain, with one of the other two taking place in Morocco and the last one on a US Navy ship making a "show the flag" run from Bahrain to Pakistan. This year, I had a story set in Belgium in MYSTERY MOST GEOGRAPHICAL, and next year I'll have one set in Iceland in EQMM. Sometimes, though, my settings are invented, and when I make a place up I usually don't name it. When I use actual locations, Google Earth and Google Maps are my best friends. Keep these fascinating posts coming, buddy!

John Floyd said...

Rob, that WAS a big favor, naming a town after Cronley. Good story. And I look forward to reading your piece in Trace Evidence. Congrats on yet another AHMM appearance!

Josh, glad to hear about the upcoming EQ story--Iceland should be an interesting setting for a mystery. And YES, I agree that Google Earth and Google Maps are a great help. Thanks for the comment!!

John Floyd said...

Earl, I somehow didn't see your comment until now--my apologies.

You're absolutely right: whatever works. And it sounds as if you're pretty flexible. I do love the name Watango, Texas. Someone once said you have to be careful choosing a pseudonym because once something's published using it, it becomes as permanent as a tattoo. Same thing goes for these fictional place names. You have to choose wisely, because after the first one, you're stuck with it!