Where in the World Are Ty’s Characters?
A few weeks ago I was having a discussion with another writer. The topic turned to settings for our stories. My novel came up and I mentioned that I had started out with the intention to set the story in a real town near where I live. I mentioned however that soon after I started writing, I abandoned the idea. It turns out my friend had gone through the same thing with one of his works. He had even began to check maps and such to determine street positions, but grew tired of that and wanted to get on with the story. So he set his fiction in a generic town in the same region as the actual city he started in.
It turns out that he and I rarely set our fiction in actual locations. There are of course people who always do so, and I can’t promise that I never will. Yet by default I prefer to keep my settings either non-specific or fictitious. Here are a few reasons why.
1) Greater Control. When my stories take place in an imagined location, I can place buildings any where I please, of course. A store can be within walking distance of a character’s house if that will make a chapter more efficient. If I think the mood of a piece can be improved by having a river nearby, I simply write one in. I’m not constricted by the actual geography of a town, city, or area.
2) Less research. I think research can be great for certain types of fiction. It can even be fun for the writer. I have done some research for some of my stories in the past. Some writers love to do months of it before they put down a single word, and that’s fine. Yet if I have a story idea I want to get out, I’m most anxious to introduce the world to the characters and what they have encountered and will do about it. If in order to tell that story I have to download maps of a city and lay out where my characters can and cannot walk to as the plot unfolds, I am losing momentum. When I create the setting, I can jump into the story much faster.
3) Keeping (some) nitpickers at bay. “I grew up in Stockdon Delaware, and I can assure you that there is no way in hell that a normal person in the dead of winter could walk from McPheely’s Bar to the public library branch in less than 30 minutes. Especially if the Snowflake Festival is on, because that takes all week, and the streets are packed.” I don’t want to deal with this jackass. Do you?
4) The focus remains on the story. Let’s say you don’t need research. Let’s say you’re intimately familiar with a real-life setting you choose to set your novel in. Your hometown, perhaps. I could do this if I wanted, and again I have thought about it. I know enough of Frederick, Maryland to convince locals that my characters are walking around in same. But that is just the point. If I set my stories in Frederick, Maryland only locals or former locals are going to appreciate the references.
The vast majority of readers won’t know or care that Brewer’s Alley is on Market Street or whether you can see the Baker Park Carrilon from the steps of the old armory. Perhaps I could weave an intriguing plot out of those specific facts, but I’d have to write more exposition, I dare say. And even if I didn’t, those things only hold special significance to Fredericktonians, who likely would be taken out of my story by the familiarity. They’d think of Frederick and not my story. I prefer to direct the imaginations of readers to characters and their situation, with the setting usually as background. Not to reminding them of a real place they may or may not have heard of.
5) It’s more fun for me. Simple enough, right?
There are of course many counters to each of my five reasons listed here. For some having a story set in a real place gives it greater depth. For others the real-life setting is a character in and of itself, the effects of which can not be replicated by a fictitious city. I understand all of that, and like I said, I may myself make use of real locations someday.
But for now I am content to create characters, plot, and settings all on my own, and hopefully those that read my fiction will be content with that as well.
Do you create locations in your fiction, or rely on real places? Why or why not?