Sunday, October 16, 2011

Should locations be real?

As a fan of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, I always wondered about the locale he called Isola, which turns out be the rough equivalent of Manhattan. Why wouldn't he just call it Manhattan and be done with it? He created a generic urban setting that never had to be true to reality, so he had the freedom to make that city fit his story needs.

This summer I met a writer who lives in England but grew up my current home of Las Cruces, New Mexico. She hated it, and her recent novel makes that clear. But she gave the town a different name, probably to spare  people's feelings. All of the neighboring towns, though, kept their real names.

On the other hand, a friend wrote a novel set in Lowell, Massachusetts, and he used that name. One reader sent him a letter saying that the story was okay, but didn't he realize that his hero couldn't turn left on Dutton Street because it's one way? I also set a couple of novels in Lowell and kept worrying that someone would fault my descriptions. In my first novel, a javelina travels from near Tucson to the Grand Canyon without explanation, which is hundreds of miles. No reader questioned that, but then the whole story was meant to be nutty anyway.

Is it safer to create their own fictional towns? What do other writers do? Should your locations be real ones?


Marian Allen said...

My very most favoritest mystery writer, Michael Z. Lewin, has two series set in Indianapolis. He lived in Indy for years, then moved to Bath, England. For a long time, he came back to Indy every year, to freshen up on the traffic patterns, businesses, flavor, etc. Now, he writes a series set in--you guessed it--Bath, England.

I love to read books set in a place I've been, to the point of my getting out maps and following routes. Yes, I'm really that anal.

As a writer, though, I prefer to make up my towns, so I can switch stuff up and so I can make a business a real rat-hole if I need it to be without hurting a neighbor's feelings.

In other words, either way works. Helpful, eh? ;)

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Morgan Mandel said...

I've set stories in my novels in real places like Chicago, and included some actual stores, but never write anything bad about them, for fear of retribution. I also invent streets in real places so people who live there won't get upset about action being at or near their homes.

Morgan Mandel

Bob Sanchez said...

But if you write something bad about a place, people will only notice if they read (and presumably buy) the book. ;-)

It's hard to imagine writing something so bad about a place that the author would have to fear retribution.

Monti said...

I've done both, Bob. I've used real places in my Passenger to Paradise books probably because I enjoy travel writing so it's fun to include the real. I have a book I'm working on now in which I've created a town based on a real place to protect the innocent and the not so innocent!

Interesting post.


alberta ross said...

something I haven't had to worry about before but the novel I'm starting in NaNo will be set in a real place (not the future) and have still not decided whether to name it or not

Earl Staggs said...

I do it both ways. My novel MEMORY OF A MURDER is set in Baltimore and Ocean City, MD. I knew both well enough to get the facts straight. My short stories are usually set in fictional towns so I can make up facts to fit the story. It's easier that way. It bothers me if an author uses a real place and gets it wrong.

Mark Troy said...

With a real small town setting you don't have the degrees of freedom that you have with a big city setting. It's easier to invent streets and neighborhoods and establishments in a big city than in a small town where everybody knows everybody else.

My stories are set in Honolulu and I do worry about the one-way streets. Don't know what I would do without Google Earth.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I use fictional towns set in real areas. Surrounding places have their real names. In both cases I did that so I could change the geography.

Anonymous said...

Like Marian, I enjoy both types. For me sometimes when you know it is SUPPOSED to be a particular place and it is renamed there is a bit of private excitement that they may tell you more than they would have if concerned about proving stuff they KNOW but can't prove to a legal certainty. I certainly felt that way while reading Dominick Dunne's "Another City, Not My Own." There are a couple of little things in there I don't think he would have said in a nonfiction version or without the very minor & humorous name changes.