Archive for the ‘#novelsettings’ Tag

Real Fictional Locations   17 comments

Do you use real or fictional cities in your writing? How do you incorporate them into the story?


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A Cautionary Tale

There’s something to be said for skipping some world-building, but authors generally need to be more careful when they use real locations in a work of fiction.

There was a book written in the 1970s about Fairbanks during the TransAlaska Pipeline construction boom. It wasn’t a very good book, but I was forced to read it as an assignment in an Alaska Literature summer course I took for extra credit. I wanted to graduate in four years but the University of Alaska tried to foist a 9th semester on me by saying one of my English credits didn’t qualify because…reasons. So I took a correspondence course because I had a life to get to.

This book, which I don’t remember the name of, supposedly described places in my hometown, and it got a LOT wrong. The writer supposedly lived in Fairbanks during the TAPS, but I’d bet he didn’t spend a lot of time here. So I’ve always been leery of using real locations, other than Fairbanks, Seattle (where I’ve spent a lot of time), or Manchester New Hampshire (where I’ve also spent a fair bit of time) as locations in my books because it’s offputting when authors get stuff wrong about your town. One of my favorite mystery novelists Phyllis A Whitney admitted at the start of a book that she’d moved some locations around in a novel for plot flow and that’s great. I’m sure the people of Charleston SC appreciated her honesty, but what if I get something inadvertently wrong and a reader goes to that location trying to find it.

Nope, I prefer not to do that.

Real as a Foundation for Fiction

But I do use real communities as the settings for my books. I just don’t identify them that way. For example, the town of Emmaus in Transformation Project is based on two real towns. One is my mother’s hometown in North Dakota. Some of the people in the town (renamed) and some of the buildings are borrowed from that location, transported by fictional magic to Kansas, where I use the statistical data of a Kansas town in that general location to tell me what highways run by it, whether they have natural gas or a nuclear plant nearby, and what the weather is like at different times of the year. What flight trajectory would you take if you were taking off from this town? What crops grow well there? I drove through that town 30 years ago. It seemed like a nice place, but I don’t think the residents would appreciate if I took liberties with their town in my fictional book. So it’s called Emmaus, Kansas, which is a very fictional town with some basis in reality.

I did the same thing in What If Wasn’t series. I picked a town where I wanted to situate the story. I’ve been there — once–15 years ago or so. I spent an afternoon. That’s not enough to say I really know the town. I use the town as a template for the fictional town in the novel series, but I feel much freer to take liberties because it’s not really that town. It’s Port Mallory, New York, and it only exists in my books.

Someday, I do plan to finish the story I’ve been noodling with that is set more or less in Fairbanks. But I don’t know for sure that I will identify it as such. Yes, I’m intimately familiar with this town, but the fact is I might need to make adjustments for plot flow and I’d rather not make a muddle of my hometown.

Valentine But

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