Hey, I know that place!

by Alafair Burke

Last night I glimpsed a new neighborhood in New York: Bay Ridge.  I know, I know, Bay Ridge has been around for-evah.  It’s also nothing new to creative types.  Tony Manero lived there in Saturday Night Fever.*

So did Peggy from Mad Men, announcing, “I’m from Bay Ridge.  We have manners.”

But nearly a decade since I left Oregon for New York, I am still learning about this city.  Last night the subject was Bay Ridge.  I was there for a book event (terrific store in Bookmark Shoppe, by the way), so took some time to check out the neighborhood.  I even made my local friend, Jeff, show me the home several customers referred to as the “gingerbread house.” 

Rumor has it that the garage floor rotates like a turntable so the owner doesn’t have to back the car out.  Pretty sweet.

Do I know the ins and outs of Bay Ridge as well as Jeff?  Of course not.  Could I set an entire novel there with authenticity?  I doubt it.  But I saw enough of 3rd Avenue, 83rd Street, Shore Road, the Fort Hamilton Athletic Field, and the gingerbread house to set a scene there. 

But what if I hadn’t seen the place?  I could read about it on Wikipedia.  I could stroll its streets on Google Maps.  I could also make it up from whole cloth.  Would it really make a difference?

For reasons I haven’t fully identified, I’m uncomfortable writing about places I don’t know.  I mean, really know.  Ellie Hatcher’s backstory is in Wichita, Kansas, where I spent fourth through twelfth grade.  Ellie works for the NYPD, and her life takes place almost entirely in the pockets of Manhattan I know best.  Her apartment is in the same spot as my husband’s former place.  Her latest homicide case occurs in the fancy new condo building across the street from me.  Samantha Kincaid is a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where I lived for nearly a decade (and worked, yup, as a prosecutor). 

Why do I make these choices?  Maybe I’m just lazy.  Research, after all, is not my favorite part of the fiction gig.  But I think there’s more to it.  After all, starting a second series set in New York (the Ellie Hatcher series) was definitely not a lazy move.  I had plot, character, and procedural reasons for doing so.  But that move was also about place.

Five years after leaving Portland, I was starting my fourth Samantha Kincaid novel and wrote a scene I knew just wasn’t right.  I went for a run to figure it out.  Sure enough, I had Sam hailing a cab outside a witness’s house in the West Hills.** Homey don’t play that. 

I not only caught the mistake, saving myself from the “you’re-an-idiot” emails that surely would have followed upon publication, but I also took it as a strong hint that my imaginary life in Portland was growing dusty.  At the same time, I realized I had finally become (gasp) a New Yorker.  I decided to try my hand at this new town of mine, at least the Manhattan parts, and think I’ve managed to capture the place pretty well.  I even named my most recent novel 212 (the original Manhattan area code) to highlight Manhattan as a main character.  My writing will get back to Portland when the time is right, but I’ll probably only jump in after rekindling my relationship with the city. 

I do, however, realize this is likely a whole lot of ridiculousness on my part.  Plenty of writers continue to capture the magic of places they’ve long left behind.  Michael Connelly no longer lives full-time in Los Angeles.  JLB wrote the first four books in the Dave Robicheaux series from Kansas.  Even the miraculous Lee Child can’t possibly live in all those Jack Reacher stops (or can he?).

What do you think: When a writer truly knows a place, does it make a difference on the page, or only in the writer’s mind?

 * I have so much love in my heart for Saturday Night Fever that it took incredilble restraint not to insert a 400-word digression here about the brilliance that is that film.  Please tolerate this footnote instead.

** Lest you’re wondering, these are the same West Hills referenced in the Portland band Everclear’s “I Will Buy You a New Life.”  No cabs there.  Trust me.

P.S. I’m out on tour still, this time in Washington DC (Borders, Bailey Crossroads, 7:30 PM).  I’ll be checking in as I can, but forgive me if I’m slow to acknowledge your comments.  I want to see them though, please!

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24 thoughts on “Hey, I know that place!

  1. Shizuka

    I’ve got to really know a place (live there or did before) to write about it.
    But I stray from reality in the details; making up bars and restaurants is part of the fun.
    It’s all good, I think, as long as the made up places feel like they belong in the real hood.

  2. Mark Terry

    Each book in my Derek Stillwater novels takes place in a different city/region, but I try to research them as much as possible. It also works for me that Derek doesn’t necessarily know the places he’s working at either, so those places tend to be viewed from his POV, and he can be a fish out of water there as well. That helps.

  3. Terry Odell

    I’ve visited the places I’ve written about, although I usually fictionalize the settings. I did write one book set in my (then) home town and it was much more work, because I had to get the details right — and things change between writing and pub date.

    Barry Eisler spends time describing the locales in his books, and he visits all of them I assume he also samples all the whiskey John Rain drinks. (cool tax write-offs, yes).

  4. Kagey

    I like the idea of fictionalizing, but closely basing it on, a real place. I did this with my YA novel, even setting it back a decade to match when I was in high school. In retrospect, this dated the work and was part of why at least one agent turned it down. My hometown has changed so much since I last lived there. I would need to do research on it to write that setting now, if I wanted to be true to life.

    Connie Willis, the science fiction writer, likes to place things in the future, but still in Colorado where she lives. I actually like this idea a lot — imagining your current home 50, 100 or 200 years in the future, and setting a story there.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    While I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I can’t seem to place a scene or character background there. Maybe Albuquerque just doesn’t seem like a "hardboiled crime" location for me. And I left when I was eighteen, so the place has changed considerably. It’s not the place I knew.
    I also like to spend time in the places I write about. Too much time, actually. I spent a ton of time in San Francisco for my last book, and yet I feel like I barely scratched the surface. And yet, I feel like I owe it to the locals to get it right.

  6. Alafair Burke

    It is such a compliment when locals say you got it right, isn’t it?

    I’m in DC right now and realize why so many thrillers are set here. Capital Hill was built for a chase scene!

  7. Gayle Carline

    My first book, which I refer to as my "beautifully written piece of crap", was set in Amarillo. One of the many problems was the fact I’ve been to Amarillo once, for a total of 16 hours, 8 of which were spent sleeping. Googling google-facts and google-earth in the end did not ground the story enough. I didn’t know the rhythms of the city, the way people greet each other, how they dress, etc.

    I set the second one in my hometown. No, Placentia, California is not a hotbed of crime, but I thought it would be fun to place a mystery where you wouldn’t expect one. I kept most things real, but fabricated locations when I needed to, because at the end of the day, it’s FICTION. The result was a nice little story that a publisher read and liked, and now Freezer Burn is out on the market, and I’m so happy, my tail hasn’t stopped wagging.

    Gayle Carline (http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com)

  8. Fran

    You said, "I not only caught the mistake, saving myself from the “you’re-an-idiot” emails that surely would have followed upon publication. . ." and that’s a great reason to set books in places you know well. Because mystery/suspense readers pick up on the little things,and if you get it wrong, you jar them and they let you know. Loudly.

    Stephen, when I read Andi Marquette’s mystery, "Land of Entrapment", she set part of it on Central in Albuquerque, and I hooted out loud that I knew exactly where that was. It was a great feeling.

    And sometimes you can Google Earth a location and pull it off. Nicola Griffith did it in "The Blue Place", having described a town in Norway precisely while never having set foot there (as I recall). But I always suspect there are nuances, smells and sounds and the way the air feels, that you just won’t get doing online research.

    But mostly I think you can put your heart into writing about places you know and love, and it shows to us readers.

  9. Cornelia Read

    I definitely write about places where I *used* to live, but it helps to have the stories set during the time period I actually lived there. I’m sure Syracuse and the Berkshires have changed since I was last a resident–I KNOW Manhattan has. It’s almost writing out of nostalgia, in a way. But I do my best to fact-check, even so.

    And hey, you can’t even really hail a cab in San Francisco, which is one of the reasons I hope I get to live in NYC again.

    Hope your tour goes GREAT, and it was so much fun to see you Friday night!

    xx Cornelia

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Very interesting post. I love getting the feel for a new place enough to describe it in a novel and have people who know it well recognise the location.

    When I wrote SECOND SHOT, I was lucky enough to visit the Boston Aquarium, where a scene is set. The internet is great for giving you a certain amount of information, but until I went there, I didn’t realise that the first thing that hits you when you walk into the place is the smell of fried fish, which has a certain irony that really appealed to my main protag…

  11. JT Ellison

    Great post, Alafair. I don’t like to write about places I haven’t at least visited within the last few years, because they change so much. And there’s a few places I won’t write about – Colorado being one. It’s sort of sacred to me, so I don’t want to put it on paper. But New York, Nashville, Italy – I’m all in.

  12. Allison Brennan

    I’ve written about places I’ve never been; places I have been; and places I’ve lived in. It is much easier to write my books set in Sacramento or Northern California than it is anyplace else! I wrote 4 set in San Diego which was ok because when I lived in LA I went there ALOT. But I also relied on a friend who lived there for some details.

    I particularly loved making up a fictitious town for Original Sin–it’s halfway between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo between the coast and the Los Padre National Forest. I can use the geography without being beholden to it!

    I’m writing a book set in DC. I lived in Virginia (Chantilly) for four months, I’ve visited many times, including recently for research, and I have a friend in Georgetown who I owe lots of drinks next time I visit. I’m pretty comfortable writing this story though I would like to go back . . .

    I wrote two books set in Montana and people have told me they thought I lived there because I got so much right. My husband went to college at MSU-Bozeman, so I had help–but I’ve never been to Montana. Though I feel like I have . . .

  13. Robert Gregory Browne

    I’m torn about this. I sometimes have to write about locations I’ve never been to, and I think I do okay with that (in fact, in one case, I was told by a regular visitor to the place that I had captured it quite well)

    On the other hand, I also think that going to a location allows you to absorb the place, drink in its atmosphere and people, its architecture, the every day life there —

    — and that can only be a good thing for a writer.

  14. Alafair Burke

    Thanks for the great observations. I wonder if it’s safer to make stuff up about places few people know about (e.g., Montana) than, say, New York? If it’s wrong, there are fewer people to call you out on it. And because folks don’t have a pre-existing notion about the place, they’re more likely to believe whatever you make up.

  15. Rachel Walsh

    Well, I write historical crime – my setting is nineteenth century Paris – so I’ve never been to my setting; and unless time travel becomes a reality, I never will (neither will my readers, come to think of it, which is a bit of a relief in terms of getting things 100% right!) So for me, research is the key, and lots of it – scouring old maps and grainy, sepia photographs of the city and its inhabitants; tracking down old journals and diaries kept by visitors to Paris, as well as travel guides of the day; soaking up nineteenth century artwork and novels depicting Paris of the 1860s … hmm, lucky for me I’m a research junkie!

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