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  1. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    The Big Apple, My big problem

    Discussion in 'Research' started by The-Joker, Mar 31, 2011.

    Okay so I've just about finished the first draft of my urban fantasy story, and I have a bit of a problem.

    I started out with the intention of having the book based in New York City. It was the perfect setting for some of the scenes I had in mind. But as I started writing, it became all too apparent that I didn't have the knowledge to flesh out the details of some the scenes with the level of accuracy required to make it sound authentic. See, I live quite some distance from New York. On the other side of the world, actually, and my grasp of the city is based solely on watching Gossip Girl( okay okay and the plethora of other films and tv shows set in the place, but Gossip Girl's the most fun, hehe).

    So things like street names, buildings, suburbs, demographics, the different sectors are all hazy to me. How far is the Upper East side from Brooklyn? Which is the ideal hotel to stage my rooftop fight scene? How quick can you really wave down a taxi in Manhattan? Which parts of the city border the Hudson River? How do they look? What types of trees and flowers grow in Central Park? How crowded is Central Park at certain times of the day?

    It's questions like these that I feel I need a difinitive answer to if I'm going to create a New York that's believable. But they can't simply be googled, at least not with a tremendous amount of sifting.

    It's said you should write around the familiar. But my story needs a big flashy city like New York. Right now I'm leaning towards a made-up city. Something like Gotham City or Metropilis. But I can't help but feel the story would pack more punch if it was grounded in a real city. It would make the fantastical elements that much more intriguing.

    As it stands in the first draft, I've used the names I'm familair with ie, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge etc, but I've made up most of the other stuff, streets, buildings etc. not feeling comfortable to write about some random name of a map I'm not 100 percent clued up on.

    How about you guys? Have any of you ever had this problem when trying to base a story in a city you've never visited. Do you think a made up modern day American city is a viable option or should I find some way to research New York till I have a firm understanding of it? If so what are the best ways of doing so?
     
  2. Louis Farizee
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    Louis Farizee Member

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    I'm from New York and I still commute in daily, maybe I can be of assistance.
     
  3. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    It's a catch-22, in a sense, because if your story is such that it needs to be set in NY to pack a punch, then it's probably weak in other areas and no amount of authentic, nuanced detail will make it any better. And if the story is strong, then it really doesn't need to be set in a specific city to work, so why bother?

    And honestly, a lot of people write stories specifically set in LA or NY, thinking that will some how make the story more relevant or edgy, and it really doesn't. Sure, sometimes it's necessary if it's historical. And sometimes those details can really add to a piece if that's what the writer is familiar with. But putting any amount of emphasis on it, hoping the city will carry the weight of the story, is a mistake.

    My advice is that intricate, unique details are the most important thing. A story generically set in NY, all other things considered, is going to be weaker than a story set in a fictional, but fully realized city.

    The real question is how good you are at playing make believe? Some writers can research a topic (whether city or whatever) and make it feel like they're a native (or more importantly like their character is), while some people just have to write only what they know as they're good with that.

    It's not impossible to learn enough to make a city feel authentic. I mean, people do this all the time, but it's time consuming and you may not be cut out for it as some people seem to be.

    One trick is to realize no matter what you do there will always be the types of readers that fact-check and will call you on the fact the train doesn't take 13 minutes, but 15, as if it invalidates the story. One way around a lot of this is to simply not indulge them. Don't say how long the train ride takes, just end a scene with the character getting on the train, open a new scene getting off, that kind of thing. A lot of headaches can be avoided in this way, with this and many other sort of issues.

    Of course, things need to be realistic and believable in general, no having a 30 minute gunfight on a train that the reader can reasonably assume took half that time. But if you avoid big 'what the?' sort of issues, and are clever about it, you can fake a lot of the big stuff with trying to write a specific city.

    But then again, the little things, the nuances, are the hardest to fake and why many people either fail or avoid trying to write a setting they aren't intimately familiar with or making up on their own.
     
  4. jonathan hernandez13
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    jonathan hernandez13 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just do research, I used to live in NYC, I guarantee you there is probably someone out there who knows the city better than I do---even if they never lived there. It is too big and complex to know top to bottom, just do research and ask around, if you do all the hard work it shows.
     
  5. Louis Farizee
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    Louis Farizee Member

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    Or just call it The City. Sure, you don't get to use well known landmarks, but you can just invent your own.
     
  6. KillianRussell
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    KillianRussell Contributing Member

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    Google the Woolworth Building, (very famous, with a story behind it's ornate features) located in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, it is a phat in so far as a location in an NYC based horror, John Lennon took a bullet outside his apartment @ The Dakota.... Mulberry Street the main artiery in Lil Italy....The punk clubs CBGB's, Max's Kansas City were located...The mobster reside on Staten Island.....Juilliard School of Music is uptown around 65th and Broadway a short walk to Central Park.....The United Nations located in a nice section near 1st Avenue at 46th Street
     
  7. Ion
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    Ion Senior Member

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    I say go with a fictional city. If you give your make believe city enough of a life that if feels real, feels like a real place that's been around the block, then it's better than the real thing. After all, you can tailor your city to be exactly the way you want it to be.
     
  8. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with this, and further new york city is vastly different form neighborhood to neighborhood, county to county. Some places are as gritty and lively as the shows would demonstrate, but others are quite the sleepy niche. I would say if you want details on the famous sights, then googling is fine, but to actualize a slice of feeling of walking the streets, riding the metro, biking along the bridges, or anything else, you just need a solid imagination as these things are not exclusive to this urban setting, just the street names are.
     
  9. Louis Farizee
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    Louis Farizee Member

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    Metro?
     
  10. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    I mean the subway, I have just always called it the metro after the M.T.A
     
  11. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I'd stick with New York.

    I'm not sure but I'll bet that the writers of Batman would love to just call Gotham City New York and get it over with already. Spiderman is set in New York and that's a set up in the fantasy.

    I'm very familiar with New York and my wife even more so. When navigating the city I would always say things like, "Let's go to that place by ABC Carpet, and then hit the bookstore over by the square." In other words, I communicated in landmarks not exact map locations. I'm sure that's how you talk about where you live.

    New York is VAST with probably tens of thousands of shops, stores, and restaurants. Many are fixed classic places and many open and close fairly quickly. In contrast, I recently drove through Haze Kansas which is a very tiny town and I ate at this fried chicken place which I suspect has been a mian feature of the town for a hell of a long time. So, my point is that NYC allows for a lot of creative description, but Haze doesn't and you had better get that right.

    With NYC you can say, "I was standing by the noodle shop staring at the lunch crowd in the park when it hit me. The noodles smelled like old cat meat. I'm so tired of this town, but it's the only place a guy like me can make money with the skills I have."

    So, that was a depressed private detective type of thing. I didn't say what park, what noodle shop, only that it was lunch. The dubious smell of the noodle shop gave some sense of the confusion and mixed quality of the city. You just get the feel of NYC because you know there's parks and so forth.

    Meanwhile, if I wrote, "Haze Kansas was a windy one street little that seemed a little more than paranoid. Everyone stared at me and I could tell they knew I wasn't from around here and they didn't seem to like it. But, my lunch at Chuck's Famous Chicken was almost worth it, expect for the indigestion caused by the glares I was getting. After I paid I walked across the street to the giant Apple just to feel like I was in the 21 Century."

    Okay, so anybody who know Haze with know that people are weird around strangers and that there's a great chicken place. However, they will think it's absurd that there's a giant Apple story anywhere in town. It would probably take a thousand years to get such a store there. However, in NYC there could be a new type of store at any time or place and even a native New Yorker would be fooled.

    Google:

    You can use Google Street View to actually see what exists on any given street in NYC.
     
  12. jonathan hernandez13
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    jonathan hernandez13 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes you can, good point. And as he said, buildings are always going up and coming down in NYC but the landmarks (Statue of liberty, Empire State building) are always up unless there's a national tragedy or something.:)
     
  13. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I don't know why I found that funny.

    One must be up to date on landmarks that have been obliterated.
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    of course, if you want to set your story there and have it be believable!

    all the ways mentioned above... google, movies, books, people who live/d there, et al.

    you can email me for info, if you want... i lived/worked in or near the city for nearly half of my life...
     
  15. jonathan hernandez13
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    jonathan hernandez13 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ahem, well yes...there were two rather large buildings that used to be in the downtown section of Manhattan that arent standing anymore:redface:

    There you have it, you have offers from like four people who know and knew New York. No excuses now, do that research:p
     
  16. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks guys. The responses have been a huge help. I guess I wanted the story to be set in New York because of its grand scale. It's the quintessential big city and is easy to identify with no matter where in the world you live.

    It's going to be a lot of work to research certain areas and buildings in New York, but it might be worth the effort. To all the people who've kindly offered assistance, I'll definitely keep you in mind if I do decide to take this path. Thanks.
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Okay (I love this). First of all, New York is a city of five boroughs, each of them unique in flavor. Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Each has its own look and feel, and New Yorkers know when they're in Queens, it couldn't possibly be the Bronx, and when they're in Staten Island - well, most New Yorkers never go to Staten Island, it's too much of a pain to get to. The one exception to this is an area of Queens called Ridgewood, which looks a lot like it could be in Brooklyn, nor surprising, since it is on the border between the two.

    The Bronx is the northernmost borough, and the only one on the mainland. Brooklyn and Queens are on Long Island, although no one in either borough considers themselves to be from "the Island" and no one in the suburbs considers Brooklyn or Queens to be on "the Island", either. They are the only two boroughs that share a land border.

    My advice is that if you are going to go ahead and retain your New York setting, that you focus on one borough. From your OP, it sounds like Manhattan would be the way to go. If you decide to do this and would like some specific detail, please PM me and I'll be glad to help in any way I can. You may want to add a piece from another borough (e.g. Flushing, Queens is a large Asian enclave, and the downtown portion of Flushing sports numerous signs in Chinese and Korean; Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, is known locally as "Little Odessa" because of its large immigrant Russian community), that could add some flavor as well.
     
  18. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks Ed. That gives me a better perspective of the city. Most of my book definately needs a Manhattan feel, but there are some parts which have to be set in an area less upmarket. So yeah great help!
     

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