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  1. jmh105
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    jmh105 Member

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    Deciding on location -- Fictitious or Real?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by jmh105, Nov 24, 2015.

    Hello everyone, I want to place my story in a realistic setting, and I was thinking somewhere in either the United States or Canada. However, I am not sure whether I should place them in a city I make up or in an already established city (i.e. Chicago). If I am not comfortable with where's where in the city I choose or what streets border which streets, would it be best if I made up the location? Have you seen authors do this?

    If you would advise against creating my own city for the setting, how should I go about placing them in a real city? Do authors who use real-life cities have to know the specifics of that city in order to make it work? I feel that if I studied up on even my own home city, I wouldn't remember where's where.
     
  2. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    If you are going to place the story in a real city, you may have to do a bit of research, just as those who write historical fiction do.

    And--the research just might inspire you to include interesting local elements into the plot.
     
  3. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    I would say you should do some research--for me, Google streetview has been invaluable. It's not as good as actually going somewhere, but it definitely helps you get what the view from a certain location looks like (i.e what kinds of buildings, is it hilly or flat, how much vegetation, etc.). I've always loved maps anyway and found them to be a source of inspiration, and street view just adds another layer.

    Although your ability to fudge stuff also depends on what you're describing--if you talk about the majestic view of the Rocky Mountains that your POV character has from Coral Gables, FL of course it won't work, but smaller details, like the placement of side streets or the exact number of blocks from point A to point B, you can probably get away with. Most of your readers won't be that familiar with wherever you're describing.

    And of course it all depends on how well the readers are enjoying the rest of your story, and how much they'll forgive. Dan Brown's book set in Washington DC (I forget the title) was notorious for getting many famous landmarks in the wrong place, but nobody really cared b/c we don't read Dan Brown for his scrupulous attention to geographic or historical veracity.
     
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  4. Tom13
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    Tom13 Member

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    Do what feels right. You could completely make up a city, from the ground up. Or you could say, this city is kinda like Boston, and use Boston as a template but change the name. Or you could say the city is Boston, but include some fictional streets etc, or you could meticulously research Boston and have everything 100% correct. Really it's up to you, all these approaches have been used to good effect.

    I have a series of short stories that are set in Victorian London, so I use some real places, such as Licolns Inn, but I have also created places, like Godalming Road.
     
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  5. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    A lot of authors use real cities, and specifically the real cities in which they live/have-lived or sat least spent time in. The reason for this is that it's really easy to add local color and not make mistakes about where streets are, what neighborhoods look like, etc. I realized early in my project that it was best for me to move my main location from New York (which I don't know) to Washington DC (where I live).

    So, my recommendation is to use a place you know. If not, spend a lot of time researching the area (I've had to do this for my secondary locations).

    If you're going to create a fake place, that I think works better with small towns than big cities.
     
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  6. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Also everybody who writes DC that doesn't live here gets it wrong. I laugh at it all the time in TV shows like NCIS and the Blacklist (both good shows that stage most of their scenes indoors and use bland city-scapes as "Washington"...and nobody ever says anything about getting a Half-Smoke or Mumbo Sauce...and nobody is ever wearing a Redskins or Nationals hat.)
     
  7. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like fiction that is set in real locations. When my son was younger and more interested in things like that, we went on a camping trip to Windermere (and we got to Coniston Water as well) just after having read Swallows and Amazons.

    Google Streetview should make it possible to study locations without having to go in real life.
     
  8. jmh105
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    jmh105 Member

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    Thanks for the replies, everyone--

    Google Street View sounds like an ideal tool of the trade! I can't believe I haven't thought of it. This I will definitely keep in mind, as well as trying to start with a location I know best. The problem is--I know Chicago best, but I am not sure if that's the ideal location for my characters. I'm worried for their well-being because of the nature of this city, haha. I would have to hope for Divine Intervention (i.e. Author Intervention) when dealing with interactions. :-D

    Another friend (off site) suggested that I write the story first, and then add in little details, names, etc. that would shape the location. What do you guys think?
     
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  9. Tom13
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    Tom13 Member

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    It depends on how much you want the location to flavour the story. Are you going to use the windy streets of Chicago to set the scene? Of course if the location is not important you don't have to name the city at all, you could just stick to generic names, 42nd street, Freddy's Deli etc.
     
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  10. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    This sounds like an iteration of the never-ending debate of Architects vs. Gardeners.

    In general, do you approach writing by planning/outlining first, or do you just start writing and see where it leads you?

    I'm more of the former, so if I was writing this I would definitely decide on a setting first, and probably sketch out at least a few details, before I started drafting. If you're the latter, I'd go with your friend's advice.

    But be true to your own style, is what I'm saying.
     
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  11. jmh105
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    jmh105 Member

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    To be honest, the "architect" is definitely more of my style. I enjoy planning (and, as of late, tend to do so more than the actual writing).

    But I see value in incorporating elements of both. Perhaps I might need to figure out the specifics, such as setting, character backstory, etc, but then do some details, such as some interactions, as I go along. That would be so I can get at least some writing done, haha, before I "overplan."

    Is "overplanning" things like the setting a concern to you guys? People tend to tell me that I overplan.
     
  12. tonguetied
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    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

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    Back in the 60s Folgers said they were bringing a mountain to Miami, we wondered what it was all about. All we got was Mt Trashmore. :)
     
  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think it's easier, if you're writing about a real city you don't know yourself, to have your POV characters simply be visitors to the city. Then they will see what you will see if you visit there. (And I'd certainly advise a visit, if at all possible.) They'll present the outsider's view of the place.

    It's easy to be vague about precise settings when it comes to homes, etc, when you're dealing with a big city. It's a lot harder if you start talking about parks, rail stations, shopping areas, landmarks like lakes, rivers, etc.

    If you actually know a city well, you can include local colour that a visitor would miss—which can certainly make a story sparkle. However, if your characters are only visitors, you can give your readers first impressions of the city that a native would miss. So there are positives in both methods.

    A small town, though. You can actually make it up from scratch. Literature is rife with small towns that don't exist. Not so many made-up cities, though, unless you're talking sci-fi or fantasy.
     
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  14. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I haven't read the thread and I am merely responding to the OP. I have seen many London based scenes where a character will cycle or drive impossible and ludicrous routes around every major landmark. As a Londoner it is odd to watch.

    I think details are important, and consistency. If I were to invent a city it would be heavily based on cities I know. If you are aiming for realism it might throw people if you use unrealistic descriptions. For example, I know That the Eiffel tower or canals of Venice do not exist in Las Vegas, so it would be odd if I saw them there. That would throw me immediately out of the story.

    Seriously though, as long as it feels like a real place, I am not sure it matters. Details. If it feels generic and soulless it might be a problem. If it feels real, fleshed and populated I don't see the issue.
     
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  15. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hopefully it's not too self-obsessed to mention a zombie story I wrote. I set it in a US city that I've never been to, but I spent some time working on locations. It was a story where a mother was manipulating her partner (POV character) and son to leave them in a hopeless situation rather than come back and most likely die trying to save her. I worked out how far high powered walkie talkies would reach, including where the POV character would be on high ground and were likely to have line of sight communications with the mother positioned on the roof of a building. I even located a motorcycle dealers where they could erm 'liberate' a motorcycle. I found the roads out of town and chose a lake where their planned rendezvous was going to be.

    Pity the story itself was shit. But I thought it an interesting exercise to the geographical research.
     
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  16. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Haha, thanks for the laugh.
     
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  17. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    If the story were taking place in Vancouver or Detroit or Los Angeles, I'd just use that name. If I felt it were important, I'd include a disclaimer at the front of the novel stating that I'd changed the locations of things to suit the story, always fair in fiction.

    Of course, there is always an advantage to setting stories in fictitious settings, too. How can you set a story on a domed city on Mars without making it up from whole cloth... until there's actually a domed city there?

    And now, as part of my shameless self promotion, I'll tell you about the town in my current WIP...

    It's set in the town I grew up in down in Nova Scotia. I wrestled with whether or not to change the name and finally opted to do so, mainly so that when someone gets up my nose about changing details (ie. getting them wrong) I have my defense ready: it's a fictitious town.

    I didn't make big changes, just things like which farm is next to which orchard, how big those orchards are, and of course I changed everybody's names to protect both innocent and guilty. As a result, the town feels familiar enough to me that I can 'walk around' it and be at home while simultaneously having it fit the story I'm trying to tell.

    But I also made sure to name the town something that made sense for its geography. It's a tidal river town built at the head of the tide and used to be a centre for shipbuilding and shipping back in the days of sail. The real town of Bear River became Salt River Landing.
     
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  18. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sack-a-Doo just attacked me. "This will take place in a fictional setting," he said, "A fictional setting in which you shut up." I thought he was joking, because that seems weird... but then he got all ball kicky. It hurt like nothing I have ever felt, Then, to add insult to injury, Shaggy turned up and the two of them stole my jewelry. I do not ask much, but if you see Sack-a-Doo, make sure he goes nowhere.
     
  19. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    It might be an interesting exercise to challenge each other to write a short story/flash set in each other's locations. It would be cheating for me to write one set in Auckland as I was born and grew up there. But if anyone from elsewhere in the world wants to write a sample story set in Leicester, I'll read it and comment on how the location matches reality.

    Also, if a story is set some time in the future, E.g. 2020, then you can change geography by adding or removing buildings. Maybe Central Park in New York has been sold for housing and is now a massive gated community.
     
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  20. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    Interesting. This reminded me that I had an idea for a UK-based story floating around, so maybe now I'll actually write it up. I suppose such a thing would belong elsewhere in the forum, probably under writing prompts.
     
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  21. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    There is actually an Eiffel tower in Las Vegas
    [​IMG]
     
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  22. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I totally love Nova Scotia. In fact, my next novel will be partly set there ...in a fictitious small (very small) town along the Eastern Shore, in 1886. My characters will be 'visitors,' so I won't claim intimate knowledge of the place. But man, I've certainly done research. And the best part of the research was when I visited there in 2002. (Although, sadly, I didn't get to your side of the peninsula.)

    Just love the place. If I wasn't resident in Scotland, I'd be pining to live there. It's very 'me.' I grew up in a small town in northern Michigan, surrounded by woodland on a rocky shoreline, only a block from Lake Huron, so the Eastern shore feels somewhat familiar to me. I loved the people, too. They don't jump around to get attention, but speaking to them always produced gems of information, and some unlikely connections as well as some absolutely hilarious stories. I like the way Nova Scotians (in general) have a very forward-looking outlook, but totally respect and understand their past. And their past goes back a hell of a long way. I'm trying to think of anything I don't like about the place, and aside from the lack of public transportation to certain parts of it ...there is nothing at all.
     
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  23. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's a great place to be from, but I haven't lived there in several lifetimes. :)

    Good luck with the new novel.
     

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