IS YOUR PLACE SETTING REAL? TOWNS AND CITIES
Every author has to decide on a place setting. When it comes to genres such as high fantasy or science fiction, it goes without saying there are no worries about using a real town, city or country. One can make up everything from the flora and fauna, right down to the history, culture, geography and even the planet it’s all on. Things change when the genre is set in a more realistic place (I must mention urban fantasy here).
The predicament you, as a writer, are faced with, is will you choose a real town, city or country? If so, how much detail will you include? That is the real kicker.
I’m going to give you a scenario. You are humming right along, following your muse. However, your muse takes you to a place in the upper Midwest. Your story, a fill in the blank, takes place in central Illinois. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is, you’ve never been there. In fact, you live in California and can’t afford to travel to central Illinois to perform some boots on the ground research. After browsing the internet, library and your neighbor’s uncle Harry, you glean enough of the local culture and customs that you feel you can pull off your story and get away with it. However, rather than pick a real town and piss some locals off by getting a little known detail wrong you couldn’t possibly have learned from not being there (or uncle Harry is no longer cooperative), you create a fictional town for the setting. It works and more than likely, you can pull it off just fine.
Another scenario. You want to do a story about a serial killer, an uber-violent serial killer that wipes out a bunch of people in a small town in so and so. You happen to know the area because you are writing what you know. However, rather than risk a lawsuit or unnecessarily freaking out the locals, you decide to make the town fictional.
On the other hand, many authors pick on real cities, especially large cities. There is nothing wrong with that. They can be used for almost any genre, even urban fantasy. The key to making them believable is to make sure that key locations are used correctly. If certain places are used fictitiously, make sure to have a disclaimer at the beginning of the book clearly stating so. However, that should not be an excuse for blatantly ignoring major details unless there is a specific reason for it.
Some authors are afraid to use real locations for fear of being sued. You can’t be sued for using a city or town in a story! You can be sued for slandering real individuals. There is a huge difference! Also, don’t use private property as a place setting unless you have written permission, or, unless you own that property!
I thought of this article because I am in the middle of editing The Greenhouse. As many of you know, it is icky bug. It is set in the small city of Altus, Oklahoma. I decided to use the real city as a tribute to the town we lived in and around for eight years. We made a lot of friends and had a lot of great experiences there. I also have never ever heard of it being used or even mentioned in a novel. I thought it was about time someone did. The town is, of course, used fictitiously and almost destroyed in the novel, but recovers in the end. I used a lot of real place names, streets and locations. However, I completely fictionalized the Altus police department and the city utilities as well as the local college, Western Oklahoma State College.
I also made a nod to the Vernon State Hospital. There is an escape scene in the story that takes place at this mental institution that sits across the border in nearby Vernon, Texas. In this case, I completely fictionalized the hospital in everything except the name. I did some research on the real hospital. One of my college instructors worked there and gave me a lot of insight into the real place. In fact, he was the inspiration for the scene in the story. However, because of the type of people housed there, I took great care to make sure the scenes in the book were in no way like the real hospital. I would not want to give anyone the idea that they could actually escape from that place using any real features! I plan to have a disclaimer either at the beginning or the end of the book saying so.
As you write your stories, what I’ve said is just food for thought as you construct your world. If you use a real place, make sure you get the details right, or at least keep them vague enough so you don’t trip yourself up. If you make up a town or city, keep in mind where it is at and don’t forget general details!
Next time, I’ll talk a bit more about using private property as a place setting. That has caused me some personal grief.
Until then, happy writing!