Friday, January 26, 2018

Location, Location, Location

Choosing where to place your characters in a book is a decision worth taking some time to consider. Some of us (like me) choose a fictional location; others use real towns or cities that readers might know about, or opt for cities like New York that everyone has heard about. There are advantages and disadvantages to all three.

Because I'm most familiar with my own work, I'll discuss using a fictional town/location first. I chose Road's End, Virginia, a long-forgotten, but very historic village in the middle of nowhere for my Road's End series because I wanted the freedom to name the streets, describe the outlying areas, and decide on other details like the number of stores, homes, and other buildings (in my case, a church). It also gives me license to make up landmarks and create a history for the town. Because it doesn't truly exist, there's no way I can inadvertently call something by the wrong name or attribute an historical event to it that never happened. I happen to love creating my own little world in which my characters exist. It also cuts down on the research required. I'm familiar with Virginia, so I simply applied that knowledge to keep it accurate even though the village of Road's End exists only in my mind and between the covers of my books. Whenever I came across something that really did need research, I did my best to make sure it was accurate.

I have another book in which the protagonist lives in a fictional town in Michigan. I grew up there, so I have an intimate knowledge of what towns that size are like, the weather, etc. I can easily take aspects of other towns--main streets, number of churches, or malls, for instance--and since the town itself doesn't exist, I'm not doing an injustice to an actual Michigan town. You might consider using a setting you either know intimately or perhaps even lived in if you want to go this route. It's the best of both worlds.

The down side to this is that some writers want well-established landmarks or streets or businesses in their settings. They don't exist if you're making up the location as you go along. And if you don't want to write about locations you're already knowledgeable about, preferring instead to explore new areas, then maybe another method would suit you better.

Obviously, if a writer chooses a mid-sized city for a setting, and an event that is fictional--murder, explosion, wedding, or other incident--occurs, that's not a problem. It's just when you describe a famous museum incorrectly or put a body of water nearby that doesn't exist that you'll get called out by a reader. Making a visit to the city or area is a great way to have a fun time and research your setting while you're at it. Choosing a lesser known location cuts down on the possibilities that astute readers will catch you in a mistake. Researching is still important, however, because I know you want to be accurate and true to the location you're writing about. The upside to this is that most readers will not have been in that location and perhaps wouldn't catch any errors. The downside is there are always readers who have been to your setting, and would notice mistakes. That's where intense research is imperative.

The third possibility is to choose a very well known location like Washington, D.C. Now not everyone will know every street name or business or apartment house in the city, so taking liberty with those aspects should be fine. But messing around with the better known locations will land you in hot water every time. Don't mis-name the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or mess with the locations of the other important and historical buildings for which Washington, D.C. is known. There are countless details that need to be accurate when your setting is a prominent one.

There's always the very real possibility your setting has nothing to do with a city in our country or in any other country in the world. Perhaps it takes place in the jungle or on a cruise liner in the middle of the ocean. Now you have a very different set of criteria to which you must adhere.

Let's face it: there are countless settings for your novels, and every one has its individual pros and cons. What's really important here is that you're comfortable with your location, your characters find their way around (with your help), and that you're as accurate as you can be. It's so much easier with the internet at our immediate disposal to research a location without ever having stepped foot in it. If you want to use just about any place in the world for your setting, there will be information available for you to be as accurate as possible. That will make your readers (and you) very happy. And isn't that what we all want?
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