If 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.