My Hometown*

Fictional and Real SettingsIf you’re kind enough to read this blog regularly, you’ll know that my Joel Williams novels take place in the fictional US town of Tilton (Pennsylvania). It’s a small town that hosts Tilton University, where Williams teaches. As a writer, there’s a lot to like about creating a completely fictional town.

For one thing (and I admit, I like this), the writer can create whatever sort of place she or he wants. Who’s to say there isn’t an organic market on a certain corner? Or that the library isn’t five blocks away from one of the local churches? Or…or…or…  Along with this goes the freedom the writer has to make up street names, businesses and so on.

I’m in very good company, too. Fans of Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series will know that Bruno is Chief of Police in the fictional small town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Throughout the course of the series, readers get to know several of the people who live in St. Denis. We learn about the different businesses, the street names, and so on. St. Denis has become, you might say, real.

So has Louise Penny’s Three Pines, a fictional small town in rural Québec. If you’ve read Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, you’ll know that Gamache is with the Sûreté du Québec. Beginning with Still Life, in which he and his team investigate a murder in Three Pines, Gamache spends a great deal of time there. In fact, he and his wife Reine-Marie retire to Three Pines. And it’s easy to see why. As the series has gone on, Penny has painted a vivid picture of a peaceful (well, sometimes) small town. Fans know who the ‘regulars’ are, and where one eats, shops, worships, and so on. The town has become so real to readers that a lot of people look up Three Pines on maps. But it isn’t there, of course.

D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington series also takes place in a fictional town – the village of Tuesbury. Heatherington is a retired milliner who still does occasional work to order; he’s converted his shed into a workshop, and tries to keep his business discreet, so that the council doesn’t have to hear of it officially. Heatherington is also an amateur detective. His insights prove very useful, since he’s lived in Tuesbury for a very long time and more or less knows everyone there. Through Heatherington’s eyes, we get to know the other local residents. Nelson also paints a verbal portrait of Tuesbury’s businesses, street names, topography, and so on. It’s a modern English small town, and Nelson shows us clearly what life is like there.

There are plenty of other authors, too, who have created fictional settings for their stories (I know, I know, fans of Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels and of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels). And there’s a lot to be said for doing that. But you don’t get a free pass when you create a fictional town. For one thing, the setting has to be credible. Tilton, for instance, is a university town. It’s not huge. There are no skyscrapers, underground trains, or nearby airports. It simply wouldn’t make sense to have them there.

The setting has to be believable in other ways, too. Things such as geography and climate have to be authentic. Winters are cold and snowy in the part of Québec where Louise Penny’s Three Pines is located, and that’s depicted faithfully. To take an extreme example, you wouldn’t be likely to find palm trees or olives growing naturally there.

It’s also important to be authentic in terms of cultural realities. Speech styles, customs, and other aspects of life have to be depicted faithfully, too. To give one example, the custom of market day that we see in Martin Walker’s novels isn’t followed in the same way in the US. Towns such as Tilton would more likely have a farmer’s market. It’s a similar tradition (but not identical), where local farmers, bakers and artisans gather once or twice a week (it’s sometimes less frequent than that). People then come to choose fresh produce, meat and so on. All of this is easy enough to create if the writer’s from the area where the fictional town is located. It’s more difficult otherwise. In those cases, the writer would have to do plenty of research, live in an area for a long time, or find some other way to make sure those subtle (but important) details are realistic.

Some authors choose to set their stories in actual places. As a matter of fact, that’s the case for the standalone I’m currently writing. When you set a story in an actual place, you are spared the time that it takes to create street names, locations of shops, and the rest of it. So in that sense, your work’s done for you.

But setting a story in an actual place brings with it other kinds of work. Anyone who lives in or near the place where a novel is set will know that setting and local culture. So the writer has to be accurate about place names, businesses and landmarks. That takes research (or, again, living in a place). In that sense, the writer can take fewer liberties.

Colin Dexter, for instance, set his Inspector Morse series in Oxford. I’ll admit I’ve never lived there. But people who know the place have vouched for the authenticity of Dexter’s stories. Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney stories are set in different parts of Thailand. The Half Child, for instance, takes place mostly in Pattaya. Again, I’ve never lived in that part of Southeast Asia, but Savage has. And her familiarity is reflected in the stories. What’s more, she’s done the research needed to ‘fill in the gaps’ we all have in our knowledge. There are many, many other authors who’ve chosen to set their novels and series in actual places. Michael Connelly, Christine Poulson, Anthony Bidulka and Sara Paretsky are just a few entries on that list.

No matter which choice the author makes, there’s no such thing as a free pass when it comes to depicting the setting and context. Do you have a preference when you read? If you do, do you like fictional or real locations better? If you’re a writer, which have you chosen and why?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bruce Springsteen song.


Filed under Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky

41 responses to “My Hometown*

  1. I was just listening to that Bruce CD as I read this, what a coincidence, My Hometown will be coming up as I write this.
    I always liked Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa, and only found out recently that it’s very much meant to represent a specific Californian town, is it Santa Barbara? Do you live near there Margot? I know I asked Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery how she felt about Grafton’s representation of the town….

    • Right you are, Moira! Grafton’s Santa Teresa is indeed a thinly-disguised Santa Barbara. I don’t live near there – nearly 4 hours away in good traffic. But that said, I do like the way Grafton depicts Southern California. It’s certainly authentic given the places that I’ve been. I really do think she does a good job of evoking the area. And about the music? Great minds and all that… 😉

      • I was going to mention Sue Grafton’s series too – I know it took me several books to work out that Santa Teresa wasn’t real – after my brother moved to LA I spent a fun couple of weeks staying in Santa Barbara and driving around the area trying to work out which bits of the books were based on which locations – she seems to have gotten the feel of the place right – at least as it was back then

        Someone who seems to get a real place right is Sara Paretsky and Chicago – there was an official V.I. tour back in the 90’s when I was there – more good fun

        • Oh, you’re right, Bernadette; Paretsky does a terrific job depicting Chicago. She gets the city’s geography, culture and people just right, I think. I didn’t know there was an official V.I. Warshawski tour, but it does sound fun. As for Santa Barbara, I’m glad you got the chance to explore that area and see which bits of it were integrated into the fictional Santa Teresa. In my opinion, Grafton does a fine job of showing what that part of Southern California is like; and although Santa Teresa is based on Santa Barbara, in some ways, it could be any coastal community of that size in this areal It captures the feel of the region.

  2. I always did like Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham as it reminded me of the town where I was born and lived until I was 10 so she did a fantastic job of creating somewhere believable. I have to admit I get extra excited when a book is set somewhere that I know but we don’t get many murder mysteries set in Jersey 😦

    • That’s a shame, Cleo, as I’ll bet it’d be a great context for a novel. I’ve visited the UK, but never lived there, so it’s good to hear from someone who has that Kingsmarkham is authentic. It’s certainly always felt that way to me. In some of the books that setting is at least as much of a draw as the plot is.

  3. As a reader, I’m happy with real and fictional settings but do consider setting as important as a character so I want it to feel real. I’ve used real settings and fictional settings in my novels–whatever seems right for that story or scene.

    • You hit on something really important, Pat. The story is the most important thing. So at least part of the choice of real or fictional place is going to depend on what’s best for the story. Which choice the author makes, I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of authenticity. The setting has to feel real, or it pulls me out of the story.

  4. Yay The Boss! I’m saving the article to read later – GOT to finish a book!

  5. Col

    I think I prefer real settings to fictional, because at least in my mind I get to visit more places I’m unlikely to in real life!

    • That’s one of the things I like very much about reading, Col – virtual visits. And yes, it’s especially nice to go to places I know I’m not going to get to go to in real life. I can see why you like real settings on that score.

  6. I don’t really have a preference but I do enjoy reading books with real settings, such as the Morse books (I used to live near Oxford) and the Vera books (I live not very far from Newcastle), but it is rather frustrating when the TV version films the adaptation in another place altogether -in fact that in the TV adaptation of Ann Cleeves’ Harbour Street it’s not only the location that is different it’s set in a different time of year and the murderer is not the same person as in the book.

    • I don’t like those changes they’ve made in TV adaptations either, Margaret. So often they seem so pointless. And it really is frustrating, especially if one’s enjoyed the actual setting of the book. I can see how you’d particularly enjoy Dexter’s portrayal of Oxford, and Cleeves’ portrayal of Northumbria, since you know both places. I think both authors portray those settings really effectively.

  7. I like both, although if it’s a real-life setting it will probably make me want to go and visit. Even such a depressing depiction of Detroit as in Lauren Beukes’ ‘Broken Monsters’ makes me curious to see the original. I’m so glad you mentioned the Bruno series by Martin Walker. I’m as much in love with that location as with Three Pines – and the food just makes my mouth water!

    • Oh, mine, too, Marina Sofia! I very much wish St. Denis was a real place, just for that reason! And I love Three Pines as well. Penny has done such an effective job of creating the place. As to real settings, I can see why they make you want to visit a place. I have a whole list of travel stops I’d like to make, just because I’ve read about those places in novels.

  8. Yes, it is really interesting to read a book that is set in a place you know well – harder for the writer in some ways as you have to be so accurate. And as I found out with my books set on the Isle of Wight in the UK, it can cause problems with the plot! Which is why I copied what Winston Graham did in his Poldark books, by using the part of the Island I wanted, but fictionalising the whole area, which gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, without having to worry if it was possible! An option I think many other writers have gone for too.

    • You’re absolutely right, Dawn, about the need to be accurate. When you’re writing about a real place – a place people know well – you need to get those details just right, or it can get noticed. You (and Graham) kit on a really effective solution, too – using the parts of a place you wanted, and creating the rest. Certainly your Isle of Wight setting seems very authentic to me, and your choice allowed you to develop your plots the way you wanted.

  9. Margot,
    I was lucky enough to be brought up in St Andrews, Scotland. I have used it as a setting for two books, Murder on the Second Tee and Sons of the Fathers. It has the great advantage of being an iconic place which is famous for golf, the university and its bloody history. The setting attracts readers and local bookshops tell me that visitors to the town like to buy books set there. One of the few adverse reviews said that the only thing he liked about it was the bits about St Andrews!

    • You are indeed lucky, Ian. What a great place to set your mysteries. And you have all sorts of possibilities for other novels too. And with that iconic setting, it’s little wonder that tourists want books set in St. Andrews. I’ll bet you enjoyed weaving the local life into your stories.

  10. Great question. I think most of the books I read use real locations, but since I’ve never been to most of them I can’t be sure. In any case, the authors made them “seem” real, which I believe is the point of your post. As a writer I do tend to use real locations, but I’ve been known to fudge a street so I don’t get sued by using someone’s real house number.

    • That was, indeed, the point of my post, Sue. Authors face different challenges, depending on whether they decide to set their books in real or fictional places. But either way, the point is to create a setting that feels authentic. And I know exactly what you mean about not waning to get sued. In the novel I’m writing now, I’m having to be very careful about where I have things happen for just that reason.

  11. I’m not sure that I do have a preference – I think both can work well for different reasons, which you’ve highlighted with your examples. I love reading books set in places I know for the added interest of recognition, but I also feel that I know places that don’t exist through reading about them or TV series – St Mary Mead, Midsomer etc. Regarding Morse, there is a blogger I’ve come across who is actively identifying every pub where Morse and Lewis ever had a drink in the TV series – a lifetime’s work, I should imagine! 😉

    • 😆 What a piece of research, FictionFan! I love it! I think you’re absolutely right, too, that there is appeal in both kinds of setting, fictional and real (I’m glad you mentioned St. Mary Mead, as it’s a classic example of a fictional setting!). The key, more than anything else, seems to me to be whether the setting is depicted realistically, so that readers can see it as an authentic place. And I think it’s important that it be a fit for the plot.

  12. Patti Abbott

    I may have said this on here before, but I once heard Rendell argue with a fan over the geography of Kingsmarkam. She ended it by saying it only existed in her head. Of course, that doesn’t mean he didn’t get it right and she forgot.

    • You have mentioned that before, Patti, and I’ll tell you why I’m very glad you did again. I was thinking of just that when I was writing this post, but couldn’t remember who’d mentioned it earlier, so couldn’t give credit. Thanks for bringing it up again. Folks, it was Patti made me think of how real fictional places can seem.

  13. I did not even think of Santa Teresa, California in terms of this as I read your post, until I saw Moira’s comments. Possibly because I have only read the one Sue Grafton in recent years. The one I read was not set only in Santa Teresa, but there is also the consideration that it is the Santa Teresa / Santa Barbara of the early 1980’s. Since I moved to SB around that time, I can tell you it has changed a lot. She gets the weather right for sure though. And we have lovely weather. And factors like earthquakes and forest fires.

    There is a book called “G” is for Grafton: The World of Kinsey Millhone that gives a lot of information on the series but part of it is how the locations used correspond to real locations in Santa Barbara and Goleta (nearby city of about the same size). Now I am getting antsy to try another book in the series.

    • The world has changed a lot since the 1980s, Tracy, so I’m sure that Santa Barbara has too (I didn’t know the town at that time).I agree that Grafton does get the weather and other natural phenomena right in her books. I think it’s one of the things that gives them a sense of authenticity. Oh, and thanks for mentioning Kaufman and Kay’s book about Grafton and this series. I’ll confess I’ve not read it, but I’ve heard it’s very informative. I may have to look it up.

  14. I just love my work getting mentioned in a post under a Bruce Springsteen lyric 😉

  15. Margot, I’m okay with both real and fictional settings though I, too, prefer real places. Two authors who do a fine job of weaving their stories around real places are John Irving and Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson). While Irving repeatedly brings his favourite setting, Vienna, to life, Higgins does so with London and Northern Ireland. I also like the emphasis on Bombay in Salman Rushdie’s award-winning “Midnight’s Children.” I could easily connect with it.

    • Oh, Prashant, I haven’t thought of Jack Higgins in a long time. You’re right that he brings London and Northern Ireland to life very effectively. And it’s good to hear that Rushdie does the same for Bombay. Never having been there, of course, I can’t judge how authentic his depiction is, so I’m glad to know he’s got it right.

  16. Oh wow! Thanks for the mention, Margot I’m honoured. Blake will be too. Finally Tuesbury’s on the map! 😉 Great post and I love creating Tuesbury. As I’m sure you find with Tilton it’s an ever evolving place. I have a map, which I often add to. The next book’s set on Salderk, a fictional, remote Hebridean island and I had great fun with that one too 🙂

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