Showing posts with label fictional settings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fictional settings. Show all posts

23 May 2017

Don't Settle on Any Old Setting

by Barb Goffman

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.

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.

06 January 2015

What's in a (Place) Name?

by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, I had a friend from New York who insisted on pronouncing everything with a French name in French. Never mind that the closest she had come to Paris was growing up about 200 miles from the border with Quebec. When she lived in Cincinnati, it deeply offended her that nearby town of Versailles, Indiana was called "Ver-Sales."

"It's pronounced vayr-SIGH!"

"Yes," I said. "In France, it is. In Indiana, it's pronounced 'ver-sales."

"Well, that's ignorant. It should be pronounced in its native tongue."

"OK. From now on, you have to call the town in Clermont County 'Moskva.'"

She wasn't down with that. Russian, to her, was too ugly. So even the Russian capital, in her reckoning, was called "Moscow."

But this has long been on my mind since childhood. I grew up in a town called Lodi. Most people can pronounce it since we've all heard, sooner or later, the Creedence song "Lodi" at least once. This song ended up being massively overplayed on Cleveland's WMMS and even CKLW out of Windsor. All because there was a town in the Cleveland area called Lodi.

Growing up, we were told the town changed its name from the original Harrisville, named for the town's founder, to Lodi in honor of Napoleon's first battle. Why? Well, Americans hated the British and liked Napoleon. By the time yours truly emerged from Lodi Hospital, the town square had a fountain with the village mascot, Chief Lodi. Nobody ever told us there had been a real Chief Lodi. And yet for a time, the Wikipedia article stated that Chief Lodi was a real person. Never mind what tribe or where he lived. The reference is gone now, but methinks a local had a little fun with the article before it was corrected.

But what goes into those names? Why do we call them what we call them? A small industrial city near where I grew up is named "Wooster," as in Jeeves & Wooster. However, the settlers hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts. Only it's pronounced "Wooster." The Massachusetts town is named for Worcestershire. Yes, that's where the sauce was invented. In true English fashion, that town is called "Woostersher," a concept I still have trouble with these days.

But what of fictional towns? Ross MacDonald loved Santa Barbara so much that he modeled Santa Teresa on it instead of using the real Santa Barbara. Sue Grafton picked up on this and based her career on this fictionalized version of her home.

Ed McBain, in turning New York into his fictional five-borough city, named the main borough "Isola," Italian for "island." I even got in on the act with the city in my current work in process called "Monticello" after the city on Edge of Night. The original had the Cincinnati skyline in the credits. My version probably looks more like Cleveland with the bluffs over the Ohio River flanking it.

I've found when creating or reading about a fictional place, it's good to embed common family names to streets and neighborhoods, corrupt the names of European cities for the names of towns and sections of a city, and reference events in history. It's good if the writer knows that history and how everything came to be, but the reader does not need to know. Done properly, it gives a place that may have been invented only a couple of years before publication an illusion of reality.