Choosing a Setting: Real or Fiction
It’s been said that location is another character in a story. I think that’s true if the setting is described well enough and with enough detail for the reader to actually imagine it.
Some authors are known for certain locations. Most of Susan Isaacs’ novels take place in Nassau County, Long Island. I grew up there and it’s one of many reasons I like her books so much. For me, it’s an opportunity to go back and visit the towns I knew without dealing with all the traffic. Another writer who uses real places and writes about them so well that you feel you’re there is Harlan Coben. Many of his books are placed in Livingston, New Jersey and the surrounding area. I lived in that area of New Jersey for twenty-three years and it’s where I raised my children. Again, reading his books is like taking a trip home without having to get into the car.
There are other writers whose settings are not my home town and yet I love the authenticity that these writers’ location descriptions bring to their work. Irish writer Marian Keyes’ New York wasn’t mine, I lived there in the seventies. She writes about New York in the nineties. When she writes about Dublin, I feel as if I took a trip there and that my relatives must know her characters. It’s the same with Jennifer Weiner. I just came back from a few days in Philadelphia. It’s a city only two hours from where I’ve lived most of my life but which for some reason I’ve only visited a handful of times. But when I was there I had a secure feeling of familiarity mixed with the pleasure of discovery when I figured out where I was going and I give Jennifer Weiner’s Philadelphia books much of that credit. I could go on forever citing examples, but I think I’ve made my point. Places that we know described accurately and well are a comforting pleasure. Even when we don’t know them, books provide a way of seeing a place we may never get to visit.
I don’t think that’s the intention of the authors. Certainly it wasn’t mine when I based a number of my books in New Jersey in the town where I lived and in the city where I worked. I chose those locations because I knew them well. It was easier. But I also put Suddenly Lily in Jersey City because I love those brownstone neighborhoods. In another life I would have liked to be young, single and living in one. The setting for my other two books, Conflict of Interest and Second Act for Carrie Armstrong, is even more obvious. When I was writing those books, I was living in Maplewood so it seemed natural to place them there. I didn’t have to do any research. I already knew my subject very well and if I wasn’t sure of something, I could always go for a ride.
So what’s the downside of making real places settings for books? Even if you create an alternative universe in your real location, there is always the chance that you will make a mistake. I was lucky that my editor for Suddenly Lily, Faith Black, actually lived in Jersey City. She immediately picked up on my calling Hamilton Park, Hamilton Square. That kind of careless mistake can lose a reader and certainly goes to breaking the spell that we writers hope to cast. For that reason, just before sending off the final draft of Conflict of Interest, I emailed a friend who had grown up in Elizabeth to make sure I had my street names right for the car chase. I doubt I have a big readership in Elizabeth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t have someone who at the very least grew up there. Thanks to my friend, I got it right.
What about fictitious places? Why do some authors prefer to create their own towns and not use real ones? Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake towns feel real and are based on an area of the country that she knows well having grown up there, but the towns themselves are made up. Claire Cook lives in Scituate, Massachusetts, but her books take place in a town that sounds like Scituate, but is called something else. My critique partner, Joani Ascher, bases her amateur detective Wally Morris in Grovesvenor that seems an awful lot like the town she lives in New Jersey. I haven’t discussed this issue with either Nora or Claire since I don’t meet with them to discuss writing, but I have asked Joani. Her reasons make sense. She doesn’t have to worry about making a factual mistake, or having a reader think she is writing about them, and it gives her some latitude. That’s probably all true, but I go back to my original thought. I like to read about familiar places because of the comfort and fun I get recognizing the local sights or being the armchair traveler if I can’t get there.
Before retiring to write full time, Deborah Nolan practiced family law. She was a Deputy Attorney General in New Jersey representing that state’s child protection agency. Subsequently she represented children in New York’s Family Court. When not writing or travelling and visiting her children and grandchildren, she enjoys painting landscapes and people. She divides her time between New York City and a farm in the Hudson Valley where she lives with her husband.
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