I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:


‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’


It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. 😉  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell

40 responses to “I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

  1. Oo good post Margot. One of the things I find hardest about writing a series is keeping track of what happens where, when and the places, buildings and roads. I love reading a series where you can watch a place evolve and I love creating Tuesbury in my own stories. I drew a map for reference before starting my current WIP. There’s a photo of it on my Facebook page 🙂

  2. In some cases, this post is like a stroll down memory lane. I have read almost all of Ruth Rendell’s books set mostly in Kingsmarkham. And you have reminded me I need to continue my visits to K.C. Constantine’s Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. I have read only two of those recently.

    I have one example of a book set in a fictional town modeled after a real one: Howard Engel’s books featuring P. I. Benny Cooperman is set in a small city in Canada near Niagara Falls: Grantham, Ontario. This town is based on the real city of St. Catharines, Ontario, where the author was born.

    • Tracy – I need re-read some of the Rocksburg novels. They really are good stories. And thank you for mentioning the Benny Cooperman series. That’s a series that I’ve heard of but not (yet) read. I’ll definitely have to try it. Thanks for the background on the town too.

  3. Let me mention two classic series, Margot – one American, one English.

    Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s “codfish Sherlock,” Asey Mayo, does his sleuthing in a couple of Cape Cod towns that are based on real place names on the cape but which don’t really exist – I’m thinking particularly of Weesit (named for a neck of land) and Skaket (a name used in various places, but not by itself). Taylor really does get a lot of that Cape Cod feeling into her stories, and the regulars who inhabit her places in the 1930s and 1940s, are colorful and fun.

    In the UK, there’s Catherine Aird’s marvelous Calleshire Chronicles, which follow the investigations of C. D. Sloan, his inept associate, Detective Constable Crosby, and their overbearing supervisor, Superintendent Leeyes. All live and work in the fictional English county of Calleshire, a place which has become quite familiar to readers for more than forty years now.

    • Les – Oh, those are great examples. I actually almost mentioned the Asey Mayo series, and I’m glad that you filled in that gap. You’re right too about Calleshire; it does feel very real. And in both cases, the completely fictional town changes over time and has believable people in it. They both feel quite authentic.

  4. Another really interesting post I always thought Ruth Rendall created an exceptionally realistic town in Kingsmarkham

  5. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane buy a weekend place in Pagford when they get married, and that’s the scene of the detection part of Busman’s Honeymoon. I was fascinated to see that JK Rowling used the same name for her fictional small town in A Casual Vacancy – I wondered if it wast just coincidence or an intentional or unintentional homage? (I believe JKR is a keen detective fan). There’s not much similarity between the two places…

    • Moira – Oh, I didn’t know that Rowling had used that same name. That is interesting! And thanks for mentioning Busman’s Honeymoon. Along with being a great story, it also really does have a believable setting.

  6. Margot Hakan Nesser is also a good example, I believe.

  7. Just read the latest Simon Brett novel set in the fictional English seaside town of Fethering – a much smaller, less glamorous cousin of Brighton. And of course the Midsomer series – set in picturesque villages in the Cotswolds which don’t exist (under those names). Causton, the HQ for the CID, is believed to be inspired by the real (and very pretty historical ) town of Wallingford.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m eager to read that new Simon Brett. He writes a witty novel. And you know, I thought of mentioning the Midsomer series. You’re right that the villages in them are purely fictional but somehow don’t seem that way. And I didn’t know that about Wallingford; thanks.

  8. Keishon

    Would you count Ed McBain’s mythical city of Isola with the 87th Precinct Novels? Terrific series as you know that’s supposedly based on the city of New York? Is that correct?This was a great post that highlighted some great writers of fictional settings. Thanks for this. I love Ruth Rendall and that’s based off reading one book of hers, A Judgement in Stone that was very very good. Didn’t know that St. Mary Mead was shared by another Christie protagonist. Learn something new everyday. Thanks Margot.

    • Keishon – Thanks for the kind words. And you make an interesting point about Isola. You’re right of course that it’s based on New York City, but it is fictional. Doesn’t feel that way though, does it? It really does feel authentic. I’m glad too that you mentioned A Judgement in Stone. That’s a wonderful novel – a crime fiction classic in my opinion and yes, the location does feel real. And about St. Mary Mead? I suspect those two women never meet because Katherine Grey sets off on her adventure in The Mystery of the Blue Train two years (I think) before the publication of the first Miss Marple novel.

  9. I admire writers who can invent a whole town, especially an evolving town they use in a series. I think I’d need to make a virtual or real model of the town if I did that, which would be kind-of fun.

  10. kathy d.

    You mean Vigata, Sicily isn’t a real town? I’m stunned. I could have sworn friends have visited it. Here is a link to Sicilian towns, buildings and vistas used in Montalbano’s adventures.

    • Kathy – Thanks for that link. Now I want to go to Italy! I was actually surprised too when I first learned that Vigàta isn’t real; it certainly seems so in the novels. But it isn’t. It’s loosely based on Camilleri’s home town, but it seems so genuine that it does seem to exist.

  11. Margot: As I read the post I was thinking about Three Pines and then Crooked Lake. Sometimes I think we think a lot the same way. That leads me to reflect on your post yesterday assembling the information from your survey on reading mysteries. Do mystery bloggers as a group think the same way?

    In legal mysteries the Maycomb, Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was a vividly created town.

    • Bill – You ask a very interesting question about mystery bloggers. I think in some ways mystery bloggers do think the same way because people who love crime fiction probably have some things in common. But I also think there are differences within the group too; after all, we’re all unique.
      Thanks for mentioning Maycomb, Alabama too. That’s definitely a distinctive, yet fictional, place.

  12. Three Pines was the first example to come to my mind. 🙂 But that might be because I’m reading her latest book now.

    Thanks for the mention! Yes, writing about Memphis is stressful to me–trying to make sure I get everything perfectly right. I think writing about fictional towns is easier…when they’re based on actual towns. Helps me to keep everything straight if there’s a *real* town behind the “fictional” one.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, I love Three Pines! And I hope you’re enjoying the novel.
      It’s my pleasure to mention your work. I think it can be harder to write about a real place. You want to make sure you have all of the details accurate, but of course, you don’t want to lose sight of the thread of your story. And it’s interesting that you find it easier to write about fictional towns if they’re based on real towns. I think that makes sense, especially when it comes to details about the local culture and so on. It’s easier to picture them when you’ve seen something like them.

  13. I love Three Pines! It is so real to me and it is always more than a place in the novels – almost another character, don’t you think? I think the fictitious places are like fictitious characters – they must be very good amalgams of real places or people. We must believe in them and as you say – they must change as time goes on. I have chosen, in the series I’m hoping to have published, to set my mysteries in various places around Nova Scotia – real places that I have spent lots of time in – that can be scary too as I can hear folks saying ‘she hasn’t got that right!’ but as I’m sure Penney can tell us, even if you give it a fictitious name – people will critique the way the folks talk, the descriptions of landscape etc… It all becomes so real. Maybe science fiction would be free of that!
    Margaret Laurence’s novels (not mysteries) were mostly set in the town of Manawaka in Manitoba. A fictitious town that has become as real to Canadians as the real town it is based on! (Neepawa, Man.) In fact, if you look up Manawaka there is a site purporting to be the town web-site – I think it is a made-up site! So hilarious. My parents, both Manitobans, would often talk about it, as if they’d been there.

    • Jan – Oh, Manawaka sounds like a great town! And kudos to Laurence if she could make it real enough for people to believe that it existed. I agree that when a fictional town is done well, it becomes so much a part of the story that it might as well be a separate character. I think the setting of a story has a lot to do with the way the human characters behave and interact. Maybe that’s the reason for which Three Pines seems so real. The setting itself plays a role in what the characters do in that series. I’ll have to think about that – thanks.
      I admire you for taking the risk of setting your stories in real places. That takes so much accuracy and research. It also means you have to have the right words to convey exactly what you’ve seen. Not at all an easy thing to do.

  14. All of Craig Johnson’s Absaroka County feels real to me. We’ve driven through several parts of Wyoming, and Craig Johnson lives there. All of his descriptions fit what I’ve seen firsthand.

    • Pat – I admit I’ve not driven through Wyoming, but Johnson’s descriptions really do feel genuine. He and Margaret Coel both have a real sense of place in their stories I think.

  15. Margot – Another great post on a fascinating topic. Per my post http://vagrantmoodwp.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/in-the-realm-of-the-thinly-veiled/ I have issues with thinly veiled descriptions of persons, places or events in novels, which is admittedly not the same thing as creating, say, an entirely fictitious town, albeit based partially on a real place. The creating of a fictionalized place can be very effective and sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear cut.
    I’m glad you mentioned Jackson Braun’s ‘Pickax,’ a fictionalized setting I’m actually am rather fond of (the characters in said location too).

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your post. There are certainly challenges when one uses a thinly-veiled real place as a setting. As you point out, it may be easier, more realistic and just better for the story if one names the real place. Not a lot of authors pull it off well although to be honest, I think Craig Johnson and Nelson Brunanski do it very well. And I agree: Lilian Jackson Braun’s Pickax is well-drawn setting and there are some great characters in that series.

  16. Margot, Three Pines is real, it just doesn’t appear on any maps. 😉

  17. Hi Margot, Just catching up a bit and something caught my eye (Canadian eh?) I live in Quebec and wonder at Three Pines. It may be described as a rural Quebec town and have all the feelings but what I am wondering is why it is not called Trois Pins – We have a Trois Rivieres that used to be referred to by English Quebeckers as Three Rivers about 50 years ago but not since. I don’t want to upset the very obvious fans in any way (shrinking as I type) 🙂
    It has been a good night of reading Margot!

    • Leslie – Nice to ‘see’ you! And thanks for the kind words. Here is how the name of Three Pines is explained in Still Life, the first novel in the series. It was originally founded by people who were sympathetic to Loyalists who fled the U.S. in the wake of the American Revolution. Three Pines isn’t far from the U.S. border, and according to what we learn in the novel, a cluster of three pines was a signal that Loyalists would be welcome in that village. So the name is English rather than French. OK, History class is now over… 😉

  18. I am a huge Constantine fan. Rocksburg is based on Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where Carl Kozak (Constantine’s real name) lives and worked. People familiar with the town (I am not, I grew up in Pittsburgh) find descriptions of Greensburg neighborhoods and businesses in Constantine’s novels. Yes, Rocksburg is a wonderful, realistic depiction of an American Rust Belt city in decline, but it has its basis in an actual town.

    • Christian – I like Constantine’s work very much too, and part of the reason is exactly and precisely what you say – the realistic depiction of the town. I want to university not very far from Greensburg (although I admit I never lived there). From what I remember of that area, it’s captured beautifully in the Rocksburg novels.

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