Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label setting. Show all posts

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 …

05 January 2018

Where is more than the name of a place.

by
O'Neil De Noux

I was fortunate to learn early from a panel of editors: "Setting is the fictional element that most quickly distinguishes the professional writer from the beginner." These were acquisition editors at a couple publishing houses and magazines. Stories without settings did not make it out of the slush pile.

Setting is not just the name of a place or a time-period; it is the feeling of the place and time period. It comprises all conditions - region, geography, neighborhood, buildings, interiors, climate, time of day, season of year.

Setting should appear near the beginning of a novel or story and remain throughout by answering the questions WHERE and WHEN. Using sensory details, the writer can flesh out a setting: the visual, smells, sounds, taste, feeling of the atmosphere. All five senses should be used by describing the little things - what your character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells.

Every story takes place somewhere. Setting is more than a backdrop, it creates mood, tone and can help establish the theme of a work of fiction. Like characters, it plays an important role in a story. Writers should not neglect setting.

When establishing a setting, get the details correct. You can't have azaleas blooming in Louisiana in December. In New Orleans, the weather is an important part of setting. We have only two seasons - steamy hot in spring, summer and fall - wet cold in winter. There are occasional mild days at the start of spring and the beginning of autumn. Tennessee Williams said these were the only good days in New Orleans.

Go to the place you set your story (or a place like it if you create a fictional city or village or whatever). Go there and watch, listen, take notes. It has helped me often in important scenes.

One of the most gratifying compliments I receive come from New Orleanians telling me how real the city seems in my novels and stories. They see people and places they know. Even The Times-Picayune (a newspaper notoriously indifferent to local genre writers) described my writing as, "the real thing," when it comes to the city.

The weather can come as a surprise as in real life. As I wrote my crime novel BOURBON STREET, I learned about the 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane (hurricanes were not named back then) and how after hitting Fort Lauderdale, crossed Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into New Orleans. It flooded the city similar to the way the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina, only the water didn't stay as long since there were no lakefront levees to help turn New Orleans into a bowl as it is today. The water quickly receded. I had my characters use the hurricane to assist in their escape.

I do agree with Elmore Leonard to leave out the parts people skip over. A writer, especially a mystery writer, may want to make sure the description of the setting does not overwhelm the scene.

Research. Research. Research when you set a piece in a place you've never been. If you work hard enough you can capture enough of the setting to work.

As I began to write my latest mystery, SAINT LOLITA, I originally set it on a real Caribbean island and quickly saw I'd never get the details correct so I made up an island - Saint Lolita, which lies west of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. I researched islands of the Lesser Antilles to get details of flora and fauna and architecture, populations, cuisine, architecture and weather and I think I pulled it off.


Setting. Don't neglect it, especially in longer stories and novels.

http://www.oneildenoux.com/index.html

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.

31 March 2015

Does Your City Cut It?

by Jim Winter

In the before time, in the long, long ago, I decided I would never write a story set in Los Angeles or New York. (I've since broken that rule with New York City.) No, I was going to be different. I was going to be unique. I was going to set my crime fiction in Cleveland.


OK, so Les Roberts had been doing it for about twelve years at that point. So his series was going to run out of steam soon. Right?

Er... No. He's still writing about Cleveland-based PI Milan Jackovich. But that's one series set on the North Coast. How many does New York have? Cleveland? Boston is lousy with crime fiction. Even Detroit, Cleveland's fellow declining Rust Belt city, has Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and those are just the most notable Motor City authors.

Cleveland proved to be good fodder. My Cleveland is not Les's Cleveland is not Michael Koryta's. Cleveland. And that's pretty cool. Some have asked me why I haven't written in Cincinnati.

Well...

The city never really grabbed me the way Cleveland did. Ditto for Ohio's other big C, Columbus. I'm sure I could go nuts with Cincinnati, particularly with the West Side's well-defined culture that even they make fun of. I've taken stabs at it, but Cincinnati was always a place to live for me, not a place to tell stories. And I know that's not fair. Jonathan Valin spent the eighties writing about Harry Stoner's adventures in the Queen City.

So what is it that draws us to write about certain cities? LA and New York get a large share of stories simply because they are the two largest cities in the US. But what about the smaller cities? Why Cleveland for me and Les and Michael? What makes Stuart MacBride have his cops prowl the streets of Aberdeen, one of Scotland's lesser known cities, instead of, say, London or across the sea in Dublin?

A lot of it has to do with where the author is from. When we travel and pass through a city, we see a collection of tall buildings in the middle of urban sprawl. Every town has a McDonald's and carpet stores and the same gas station chains. I remember when one author came to Cincinnati for a signing, I suggested a place to eat simply because I liked eating there.

"Naw, that's a bit too chainy."

So it was. We hit the neighborhood bar across the parking lot from the bookstore. But these are the things that make cities interesting. Nick Kepler's favorite deli really exists on St. Clair. And while Milan Jackovich's Vuk's doesn't exist, it wasn't that long ago you could find two or three bars in Slavic Village similar to it.

As with fictional cities, it's that lived-in feel that makes even real-life cities come alive for the readers.

Cleveland

26 July 2014

Stranded Again

by John M. Floyd

As I was trying to decide what to write for today, it dawned on me that some of the columns I have enjoyed the most by my fellow Sayers of Sleuth were those that revealed the "story behind the story" for certain pieces of their fiction. In fact I've always been interested in behind-the-scenes, how-I-do-it peeks into the processes writers use to come up with their creations. So, to make a long story short (pun intended), I'm going to try to do some of that today.

First, a little background . . .

In November 2011, not long after SleuthSayers began, I posted a column called "Stranded." In it I mentioned one of my short mystery stories, "Turnabout," that had recently been published in The Strand Magazine. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have five more stories in The Strand; the latest, called "Molly's Plan," appears in the current issue (June - September 2014). Down here in the Southern hinterlands, I saw a copy of this issue for the first time at our local Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and bought one for me and one for my mother (my Biggest Fan).

The glimmer of an idea for "Molly's Plan" began long ago, when I worked for IBM. My job title for many years was Finance Industry Specialist, which sounds more important than it really was; what I did was work with IBM banking software applications, like teller networks, ATMs, check processing systems, etc., which required me to spend most of my time with clients at their business sites. For me, those sites--or work locations, if you want to call them that--were banks.

One of the zillions of financial institutions I visited in the course of my career was a big gray lump of a building with white columns along the front, at the end of a narrow street that was always jammed with traffic. It was a branch of a regional bank, but it looked more like the fusion of a plantation home and a medieval prison. Even its layout was strange: it offered very few parking spaces, no drive-up windows, and limited access in just about every way. Simply stated, it was hard to get to and hard to leave. Because of this--and because my devious mind leaned toward deviousness even back then--it occurred to me that this bank would be extremely difficult to rob. Or at least difficult to escape from, after being robbed. I mentioned that to the branch manager one day, who confirmed my observation. He told me there had never ever been a robbery there, not even so much as an attempt, and probably never would be. As I later noted in the short story that resulted from all this, "Smart rustlers tend to avoid box canyons." The manager was so confident he didn't even bother to have a rent-a-cop on guard duty.

Bottom line is, my impressions and memories of that real-life location formed, years later, the setting for my story. As you might suspect by now, the plan in "Molly's Plan" was to steal a fortune in cash from the vault of this bank, and get away with it.

In the eye of the beer holder

The only other thing I might mention about the story is that, unlike most of my mysteries, this one includes a lot of different points of view. One scene is from the POV of an unnamed narrator, several are from the bank robber, others are from his wife, from a police officer, from a teller, etc. That's a lot of POV switches, for a story of around 5000 words. Most of my short mystery stories, certainly most of the ten that have so far appeared in The Strand, have only one POV--that of the main character.

So why are there so many points of view, in this story? The answer is simple: I felt it would take that many to properly tell the tale. In this case, I wanted to introduce suspense on several levels, and even though I understand the advantages and intimacy of the first-person and third-person-limited points of view, the one big advantage of third-person-multiple POV is that it allows the writer to build suspense and misdirection in ways that are not possible otherwise. Handled correctly, it can be a win/win situation: the writer can conceal certain facts from the reader by revealing only what a particular character sees and knows at a particular time--and the reader, by seeing the action through the eyes of several different characters over the course of the story, can know things about the plotline that the other characters might not yet know. Maybe there's a burglar hiding in Jane's basement, or the money John found under the park bench belongs to the mafia, or the friendly neighborhood cop is actually one of the killers. Or--as Alfred Hitchcock once said in an interview--oh my God, there's a bomb under the table!

Does that approach work, in this instance? I hope so. All a writer can do is try to sell the editor or publisher on his story, and then trust that if it's accepted the reader will enjoy it as well.

Questions:

Do you, as writers, find yourselves calling on personal experiences to come up with most of your fictional settings? If so, how close do you come to the real thing? Do you think that kind of familiarity is necessary, or do you let your imagination supply most of what you need? How much detail do you include?

What type of POV do you use most, in your fiction? Does it depend on the form--flash, short, novella-length, novel-length? Or does it depend mostly (as in my case) on the plot? I once heard someone say that your choice of POV should be dictated by how much you want your reader to know and how soon you want your reader to know it.

Have any of you tried submitting to The Strand? If you've not sent them something, I hope you will. They publish three issues a year with four or five stories in each, and their guidelines say they prefer hardcopy submissions of 2000 to 6000 words. (All of mine so far, I think, have been between 4000 and 5000.) Contact information: Andrew Gulli, The Strand Magazine, P.O. Box 1418, Birmingham, MI 48012-1418. And here's a link to their web site.

Try them out--it's a darn good publication, with a great editor.

As for me, I hope to be Stranded again someday. One never knows.

12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream

by Terence Faherty

Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 

When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 
 

Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.