03 February 2021

Unreal Estate


 I am working on a story set in  Bellingham, Washington, the City of Subdued Excitement, where I have lived for almost exactly half my life.  It is the second story I have located here. 

The main character is a bicyclist who literally tumbles over a corpse, but a couple of police detectives make an appearance.  I realized I could borrow them from my first story set here.  It was a pleasure to renew the acquaintance. 

But that got me thinking about another story of mine that is currently wafting through the electrons in search of a good home.  I originally wrote it about my lovely city but it was so... bleak... that I couldn't bear to leave it here.  So I fictionalized the place.  

Bellingham is named for Sir William Bellingham, who helped organize George Vancouver's expedition to explore our part of the world in 1792.  (If you want to get technical, Vancouver named Bellingham Bay and the city took its name from that body of water.)

So I transferred my story to the non-existent city of Broughton, named after another William, in this case one who was actually on Vancouver's famous trip.  There are other parallels: Cornwall Avenue has become Devon Avenue, both being locations in southwest England.  

Not that I expect my neighbors to recognize all these connections, necessarily.  But it was fun making them.  

All of which brings us, at last, to the main topic: When and why does a writer fictionalize a place?

I gave one reason: names changed to protect the innocent, so to speak.  Another is to give the writer more liberty with the truth.  Jo Dereske, who also lives in Bellingham, set her Miss Zukas mysteries in the fictional Bellehaven so she could eliminate a mall and move a ferry.  

A third and related reason is to save the author hours of research about the real place.  James Powell explained why he set so many of his stories in a place that resembles but is not Monaco: "Inventing San Sebastiano freed me from the tyranny of facts.  If you go into a large public library you will see a pale crowd of men and women researching books or articles they plan to publish or preparing for courses they intend to teach.  And these are all noble things.  But there are other researchers there, an even paler crew who accumulate knowledge so they can write letters to the editors of mystery magazines peppered with words like 'egregious' and 'invincibly ignorant.' 'Dear Editor,' they write, 'in your issue of November last I was astonished to find a character in a James Powell story releasing the safety-catch of an 1864 sleeve Derringer, model 302, a.k.a. 'the Elbow Smasher.'  I think not.  That particular model Derringer did not come with a safety-catch until January of 1865.'"

It was that sort of thing that caused me to set a crucial picnic scene in my novel Greenfellas in a fictional park.  I hadn't visited the real one in decades and didn't want to screw up.  One reader asked why I had changed the name of the park, which she said I had otherwise described perfectly?  The moral of that story I leave to the reader.

What do you think of fictionalized places as a setting?


  1. This is a question I sometimes wrestle with, Rob: to real, or not to real? In the Mahboob Chaudri stories I wrote in the ‘80s, I was careful to use real locations and even a few real people. In one of them, though, I decided to blow up the causeway that connected Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. AHMM editor Cathleen Jordan liked the story but said I couldn’t blow up a bridge that had in fact never been blown up, so I acknowledged the real one’s existence, invented a second causeway from the island emirate to Qatar, and blew that sucker up!

  2. Like you I think they save time and energy and free the mind up for the real problem: constructing the plot!

  3. New Orleans as a setting for me is not difficult, although there is a lot of research when I go back in time writing historical mysteries in my home town. When I wrote the novels SAINT LOLITA, I was going to use the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. Research was difficult and I realized I'd never get it right, so I made up an island, even drew a map. We're fiction writers. We make up stuff.

  4. I rarely use real places because I don't want anyone coming up to me and telling me I can't write about their house, which is right next to the one where the corpse was found. That kind of thing gives me a headache. So I prefer the unreal estate. It lets me sleep at night.

  5. When I fictionalize it's usually to give me freedom to play around with history and geography. I set a story recently in a small Arizona town clinging to the side of a mountain, once a mining community but now mostly a tourist draw. The real town, which I had visited briefly, is called Jerome. I wanted to exaggerate the slope and change a few elements of the history, so in my story the town became Kern (get it?).

  6. Great post, Rob, and an important question. Both my series use real locations, but I fiddle with the geography a little so nobody starts trying to find a character's house or office. And I never have something bad happen in a real restaurant or hotel. I agree with Susan about the hassle. I even photographed the houses I used in two books, but changed the street names so nobody could really find them.

    I invented the private school in The Kids Are All Right because I needed very specific geography. Oddly enough, I discovered halfway through writing that book that I'd actually used the name of a real private school and had to go back and change it.

    Both my standalone novels use fictional towns because the stories were inspired by real events, and many of the participants are still alive. I'm protecting their privacy...and staving off potential lawsuits.

    Many of the characters in Postcards of the Hanging have surnames that were the names of the streets in my neighborhood. I even changed another one from a street name to give the name more symbolism, which I usually avoid doing. In that case, the original manuscript was for my sixth-year project in grad school, so I thought a little biblical allusion might go a long way.

    Most of my short stories use fictional locations, but occasionally I fall back on central Connecticut or central Michigan for those, too.

  7. I set many stories in Laskin, SD, which is a fictionalized version of every small town I have ever lived in. The geography is kind of like Madison, SD, but changed. The people, however, come from all over my life and imagination. What amazes me is how many people in Madison tell me they recognize every character as someone they know... except, of course, for themselves. Oh, well. Just as well.

  8. I’m finishing up a crime novella set in New York City (mostly in Staten Island). I intentionally set it there because the city serves as a “character” in the story. Four of my novels are set in Denver. The plots in two of them grew out of real events in Denver history. Another novel is set in contemporary Wyoming ranch country. The settings and landscapes are drawn from real locations and again serve as a character in the story that helps drive the plot. People who live there would recognized the landscape. However, I fictionalized the names of the small towns, the county, and landmarks to protect the innocent, as events sometimes reflect poorly on some of the local residents. And as Rob knows, two of my published short stories involve Weegee, New York City’s famous crime photographer in the 1930s and 1940s. Couldn’t very well locate him in a fictionalized city.

  9. Josh, I love the bridge story. Eve, I have wondered whether Laskin was real or not. Jo Dereske says that several people have told her they used to live in the same apartment house as Miss Zukas - but Jo invented that one. Bruce, yes, Weegee can't exist anywhere but NYC. Thanks for all the comments, folks.

  10. FWIW, I wrestled with this issue for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine last year in an essay exploring the pros and cons of using real places...



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