1. Glen Snow
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    Glen Snow Member

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    New York, New York.

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Glen Snow, Mar 22, 2014.

    Okay so, I do not live there nor have I ever even been within seeing distance of this great American metropolis. But, I can think of no better city in which to place my story. I'm stuck with the problem of writing convincingly about a city I've never set foot in. Can this be done? How would I go about doing it, by reading extensively about the Boroughs, or maybe just google street-view? Could I just make up streets and the like?
    This is the first time I've written a story set in a modern city, most the time it's a completely fictional place or a real city so far in the future that I have creative license over nearly everything. So any tips are greatly appreciated.
     
  2. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    There's no end of novels and movies set in New York. They're filled with the sort of details you can use. And, yes, Google is your friend. I used it to check roads, distances and locations when I wrote several chapters that took place on Grand Cayman Island, a place I've never been. And of course you can make stuff up. Nero Wolfe's old brownstone in New York is one of the best-known houses in detective fiction, and it never existed.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Google Earth is a great tool, but it's no substitute for being there. Each borough has its own distinct flavor, and within each borough there are neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods become enclaves for a particular ethnicity. Flushing, in Queens, is split between Chinese and Korean, with lots of signs in each. A walk through there on a busy afternoon gives a native-born American a taste of what it's like to be in a strange land. Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, sometimes called "Little Odessa", is an enclave of Russian emigres. Williamsburgh, also in Brooklyn, is home to a tight-knit very orthodox Jewish community. There are others that have experienced waves of different immigrants and show traces of all of them, like Sunnyside (Queens), which began as a Irish enclave; the Irish gave way to Puerto Rican and Mexican influxes, and then in the 1990s experienced a new wave of Irish. Further east on Roosevelt Avenue, lies Jackson Heights, home of the very first garden apartments (two or three floors instead of six to a building), where a stroll down the avenue will reveal Argentine, Brazilian, Colombian, Cuban and Mexican influences.

    I mention all of these because neighborhood will dictate the flavor of your setting and can also give rise to unique ideas to subplots.

    PM me if you'd like to further discuss.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    in addition to the different 'looks' of the various parts of ny ny, the inhabitants of those areas also differ in many ways... there are distinct speech patterns/accents, social/economic status, etc.... so, you will have to do a lot more research than merely finding out what the streets and buildings look like...
     
  5. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it will be extremely difficult if you've never been there. Research helps a lot, but I think it needs to fill in gaps after you've experienced the feeling of a place, or at least someplace close to your setting.

    Try looking at a travel guide for NYC. I've found them to be very informative and to give some pretty good information about what a place is like.

    Is there any way you can get yourself there, even for a couple days? I don't know how old you are, but your avatar indicates you're in OK. You *could* even drive there, and you could stay in a relatively inexpensive hotel that includes parking if you stay in, for example, one of the suburbs and then take the train into the city (which could give you even more of an authentic experience).
     
  6. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    The fact that New York is a great mix of cultures and nationalities doesn't mean that your book must convey such features in detail. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, for instance, create a thoroughly convincing New York setting without telling the reader much about the cultural mix, the different accents, etc. Same with Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series. Unless you're writing a travel book, you just don't need to present such details.

    When your narrative includes descriptions of streets, bridges and other real landmarks, do take care to get those details right, because many readers will be distracted if those aren't accurate.
     
  7. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not really about conveying all of the details of everyone who lives in NYC. The fact is there are a lot of "New Yorks." NYC is different things to different people. But, an author has to be aware of and know a lot of things that he doesn't write down on the page. Understanding the milieu overall is an important part of conveying a setting.
     
    fmmarcy and EdFromNY like this.
  8. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Well, let's just agree to disagree.
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I don't disagree with you, @David K. Thomasson, although I would point out that Rex Stout launched the Nero Wolfe series in the 1930s and Spillane's Mike Hammer series was begun in 1947. New York was a very different city back then, and much closer to the profiles of other major US cities. But I assume that the OP has a reason for setting his story in New York, and knowing the kinds of things I pointed out will allow him to choose specific settings that work as well as allow him to take advantage of any local peculiarities in his story.
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'd agree that it might be a great idea to pay a visit to the city. Once you're there, you'll get a much better feel for it, including distances to walk and drive, noise levels, general impressions of how people act, smells, etc. These things won't restrict you, they'll get your imagination flowing. And they'll give you local colour you can use in your story that you really can't get any other way.

    The novel I'm working on just now is partly set in 1880s Boston. I have umpteen books on the subject, old photos, books written about Boston during the period, etc. But I've also visited the place twice. First before I thought of writing the book, and later on to do research specifically for the book. I feel much more confident about writing it now, even though the time periods are vastly separated.

    I'd definitely recommend a visit. Good excuse! "I'm writing a book and GOTTA go there..."
     
  11. fmmarcy
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    fmmarcy Member

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    The vibrancy of New York is something that truly must be experienced to be understood. My father was a cop there, and living on Long Island we didn't do much exploring of the city other than Queens, where his family lived. So I had a very good knowledge of the Italian-American, everyone knows everybody spirit of our grandparent's neighborhood, but it wasn't until I was older and returned with my father that I truly got a feeling for the sheer other-worldliness of the city that he had often described to me when talking about his NYPD service.

    For instance, he took me to the 5th Precinct, where he worked for a good number of his 20 years of service. The 5th Precinct is located in Chinatown and right next to Little Italy. Walking up out of the subway into a completely Asian setting where the most prominent English was on the street signs was disorienting and bizarre in the best way possible. To be walking through what looked and felt like a city in Asia, but knowing intellectually that you were still in America, was an experience that is very hard to describe unless one has lived it for themselves. And then, to walk several blocks to Little Italy, and in that short distance to completely switch gears to a very familiar and comforting setting (for me, being of Italian-American descent) is utterly fascinating.

    It is the little intricacies like this, an alluring disorientation that happens in New York, that really have to be experienced. If you are able to, I'd seriously recommend going if you want to truly and accurately represent the spirit of the place, and not just the physical reality. (And, honestly, I'd rather nail the spirit than the physical details) Also, spending more time in the "ordinary" areas of New York than that famous touristy attractions is recommended as well. Exploring the ordinary streets and restaurants of the Bronx, for example, will give you a far grittier, more accurate, less polished but ultimately more rewarding picture of what actual life in the city is like. Though I think that advice can go for just about any place, not just New York.
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2014
  12. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Glen, if you're still following the thread you started, would you please supply a little more information? Do you foresee your characters moving through all five boroughs, with scenes in each one that give a detailed flavor of the life there? Do you want to frame scenes in such places as Chinatown, Harlem, Little Italy, SoHo, Hell's Kitchen, etc.?

    You've got people here effervescing about the necessity of visiting the city, smelling its every ethnic corner and tasting every nuance of its life, otherwise your story won't ring true. I'm skeptical about all that, but it ultimately depends on what you have in mind. How about telling us?
     
  13. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I do want to clarify that I'm not saying someone has to visit every corner of NYC (and it would take forever to do so). But one needs some physical sense of what it is like -- and if there is a particular area where the story is going to be focused, certainly to visit that part. And I say this not just of NYC, but of any setting.

    I once wrote a short story set in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. I was worried about never having been there. But I had been to Guatemala City, and to Roatan Island, Honduras and to Belize City, Belize, as well as to other destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico. I was able to fake it well enough, having been to some other similar locales. If, however, I were to write a novel set in Puerto Barrios, I'd absolutely go there.
     
  14. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    I don't agree with your "certainly," but let's leave it at that. The OP appears to have lost interest in the thread ... and frankly, so have I.
     
  15. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    (removed my own post because it was in the wrong thread)
     
  16. Glen Snow
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    Glen Snow Member

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    Thank you for all the replies and advice I've been researching as much as can in my spare time, limited as it may be.

    "Lost interest" isn't quite it, more along the lines of "been too busy to reply in full".

    My characters will not be remaining in any one Burrough for very long. The main character will be bouncing around the less savory areas of the city, around the middle he will begin running from the police. So the places I see him being aren't really the places I'd like to visit. The second POV is that of a FBI agent chasing the main character, so most of her part will likely revolve around the Federal Plaza,her home and of course wherever the MC was recently. He tends to leave a trail.


    While I would love to visit New York, I can't just up and go. I would have to somehow get vacation days I can use for a real vacation. Then there's the funds, while my character will be spending a few nights in cheap motels I'm not sure the better half would be okay with that level of character research. Especially if I drag her all the way to NYC.
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Understandable. And, no, I didn't mean to suggest that you had to visit - sorry if I gave that impression. It's just that it's the best way. Based on what your post, a couple of items.

    Depending on what your MC will be doing when he's not running from the police, there are a few places where the unsavory gather. They tend to be on the fringes, particularly in Brooklyn or the Bronx. In Manhattan, it could only be in certain areas below 14th Street or above 96th. But keep in mind that gentrification has been underway for two decades, and yesterday's "unsavory locale" is tomorrow's boom area. But, definitely doable. A good way to get to know the seedy areas is to read the daily NY tabloids, the New York Daily News and (I can't believe I'm actually suggesting someone read this) the New York Post. Both are available online. In addition to getting the lowdown on sleaze, you'll get some pretty decent sports coverage.

    As for Federal Plaza, I can help you with that. I am a federal employee myself, and while I have only been in 26 Fed Plaza a couple of times, I have been in 290 Broadway a lot more, and that's right across the street. So I can tell you about the neighborhood a bit. PM me if you need anything.
     
  18. Glen Snow
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    Glen Snow Member

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    The New York Daily News has some stories I can work with, The New York Post seems more concerted with L'Ren Scott, Lady Gaga and of course Cocaine filled condoms being sent to the Vatican.
    I wish google street view was available on Rikers, I understand why it isn't, but it's still a bit of a let down. Anybody know a good way to learn about the grounds and interior, without spending 10-15 years there of course. I've found a little about it on Time's website and Yelp but... I imagine those might be a bit biased.

    Thank you, I very well may take you up on that and I appreciate your help. I just need to make the time for the research. It's taken me nearly an hour to type out that tiny paragraph.
     
  19. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    New York's pretty easy to get. The smell of trash is overbearing. Black gum spots are everywhere. People exude misery. The subway's feel like the Matrix. You can go for hours or days without seeing the horizon, and good luck finding a place to go to the bathroom.

    *disclaimer: From New York
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
  20. Glen Snow
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    Glen Snow Member

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    Well that's informative... :)
    I am considering my MC some what disliking the city at first, with good reason.
     
  21. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    If your character has just arrived in the city, and didn't grow up there, that makes your writing job a lot easier. He'll be riding on first impressions, and won't understand the pulse of the place like a native would do. The mistakes you might make will be HIS mistakes not yours! To a certain extent, anyway.
     
  22. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Lots of sources here. And here. And here.
     
  23. Glen Snow
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    Glen Snow Member

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    He spent a couple months in the city before being sent to prison for life roughly 7 years ago.
    Thanks, the Youtube one looks the most promising I like to see the inside and a few of those tour videos hav been helpful.

    I'm about to show my true ignorance on New York. I thought Rikers was a prison I even read the Wikipedia page about it before beginning full research.
    So...where would a person be sent if convicted of a murder that happened on the Upper East Side?
     
  24. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    This one is imprisoned at Auburn. New York has many prisons, but not all are maximum security prisons. For literary purposes, probably the two most infamous are Attica and Sing Sing.
     
  25. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Sing Sing is in Ossining, NY, about 30 miles north of the city. Attica is in western New York, not far from Buffalo, and became widely known for its riots in 1971.
     

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