by Brett Battles

Okay, first a huge thanks to all those who made comments and suggestions on my last post. I gotta say I’m still digesting a lot of it, and will be mining it for topics in upcoming entries. Simply awesome.

What I’m writing about today was inspired by a suggestion in one of those comments. Nancy Laughlin posed several questions, but one jumped out at me when I reread it this morning: Is it better to make up a city or use a real one in a book?

That got me thinking about two of my favorite things: locations and setting. As many of you know, locations play a big part in my stories. In fact locations are basically characters for me. In THE CLEANER both Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Berlin, Germany, play large parts. In THE DECEIVED it’s Washington, D.C., and Singapore. And in SHADOW OF BETRAYAL (THE UNWANTED in the UK) it’s Africa, Ireland, and California. But it doesn’t stop there. In my upcoming standalone, NO RETURN (out early 2011), the action all takes place near a navy base in the high desert of California, and in THE SILENCED (the next Quinn novel, title not necessarily final, and tentatively out later in 2011), London, Paris, and northern Minnesota play big parts.

I guess what I’m trying to establish here is my location cred. Hopefully I’ve done that. If not, ugh…but I’m moving on anyway.

When I write about specific locations, it’s important to me to give the reader an accurate feel for the city or place. I try to get roads right, and directions, and local landmarks that you wouldn’t just find fishing around the internet. The reason for this is so that the reader feels like they’ve been somewhere when they read those particular scenes.

But I’ll let you in on a secret, giving a reader an accurate feel for a city or place doesn’t necessarily mean describing those places accurately. What? Heresy!! Someone muzzle him before he says anything more!!

Well, we all know that’s not going to happen, so what do I mean by this? I’ll tell you…

If you’re going to use a real-life city, it’s probably best you use one you know. You sprinkle that city with sights and locations you’re familiar with. This will help make your city more three-dimensional and “real” to your readers. And why would you want that? Simply. If a reader feels you have control and knowledge of the location you are writing about, you can then throw in things that are purely fictional.

Let me give you an example. In THE CLEANER, a large portion of the book takes place in Berlin. I used hotels and restaurants and U-Bahn stations and an open air market that all exist. My descriptions of each of those places were as accurate as they could be. But I also needed a few other locations, too. Places that weren’t really there, so I just made them up and plopped them down in the city where I needed them to be. I even made up an entire large hotel. And I’ve done similar things in all my other books, also.

I guess what I’m trying to say is if you have a handle on the place you are writing about, it’d much easier to then add in any fictional parts you may need.

Don’t get hung up on having to be 100% accurate. We are writing FICTION after all, and, therefore, have the license to create.

That brings me back to Nancy’s question… Is it better to make up a city or use a real one in a book?

My answer to that would be, Yes.

You see, whether you are making up a city or using a real one, the important thing is that readers feel you know about the place you are writing about. If they feel like you have a handle on it, then you’ve done your job. If they feel like you don’t, it’s doubtful you’ll even finish your story.

Another example from THE CLEANER. At the beginning of the book, Quinn goes to the small Colorado mountain town of Allyson. But in the real world, there is no Allyson, Colorado, at least not where I put it. But I just made it real in my mind, so when I wrote it, it was real on the page. Or at least I hope so.

So Nancy, I think the question isn’t which is better, but which does a story need?

My old writing mentor used to say – and I know he cribbed this from someone else – “Don’t let reality get in the way of telling a good story.” Now what he was referring to was when any of his students would write a scene based on something that happened in real life, and would miss an opportunity to make it better, and when he called them on it, they’d use the excuse, “But that’s not how it happened.” The thing was, it didn’t matter how it really happened, we writing stories, not history books.

So, if you’d allow me to tweak his advice just a little, in regards to today’s topic, he might have said, “Don’t let the reality of a location get in the way of telling a good story.”

Use reality. Own it. Then, when you need to, abuse it. And if reality just isn’t going to work for you, don’t be afraid to use a place pulled completely out of your mind. You are the story teller, and as such, you are creating your own reality.

So, ‘rati, how do you feel about locations in books? Do you think they need to be 100% accurate? In other words, am I full of shit? (Rob, hold your tongue.) For the writers, what’s your take on Nancy’s question? And for the readers, does how a writer handles locations make a difference to you? If so, why?


Now talk about reality! How about tracking your life for a whole year…check this out. A high school teacher kept track of his (2009), and this is the result:

Dan Meyer’s 2009 Annual Report from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.


30 thoughts on “THE REALITY OF REALITY

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think you can have something for everyone. I know some people love to have maps in the beginnings of books. Some authors go to great lengths to be completely accurate when talking about what roads they’re having their characters traverse (I’m thinking of historical mysteries right now). It can also get in the way — a couple authors I read go in to too much detail and it starts to interfere with the story as they name street after street as they cross town or London. I appreciate their research but a little goes a long way.
    And for some reason I’m reminded of a friend of mine – perhaps as an example of fan rabid-hood: He and his buddy luuurrved Star Trek (this was back a ways so it was just the original series I think). At the time, schematics of the Enterprise were available so they’d watch episodes and be following along where they were in relation to the ship versus the schematic. Yeah, I don’t do that with books I suppose some people do care that much.
    Personally, I don’t mind made up towns and as for real ones — I’ve rarely been any that are in books therefore I’m not a stickler for accuracy and wouldn’t know better anyway. 🙂

  2. JD Rhoades

    I do like books that give me a sense of a place, and often, time. It’s why I like a well-written historical.

    But there’s a limit. Occasionally, I find even good writers who devolve into "I took X Street to the Y subway station, then changed trains at Z". Here’s the thing: unless the baddie or one of his minions jumps you in the Y subway station, I don’t give a damn about the route you took. It shows me you know how to get around in your city of choice. Big woop.

  3. Brett Battles

    PJ & Dusty…I agree 100%. A little goes a long way. Use too much detail, such as over explaining a route taken, and readers will put your book down and never pick it up again.

  4. Cornelia Read

    I like real cities in books, and I like to write about real places. But to me knowing you hook a left at the Gandhi statue after you get off the subway in Union Square to get to my old apartment in NYC is more interesting than whether it’s Fifteenth or Sixteenth street you walk down next.

    LA writers can get a little carried away about commutes. I’d rather just have the opening scene from LA Story, with Stever Martin driving to work through people’s back yards.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love this post. For me the most important thing is finding the THEME of the city. I use Boston a lot even though I’ve never lived there because, well, it’s a living, breathing place. Layers and layers of history. So – weird. Cemeteries everywhere, witch hangings in Boston Common, the Boston Tea Party, those freaking twisty streets… and all those museums…

    Boston to me is supernatural. So where better to set supernatural thrillers?

    I was thinking we should do a group blog about writing LA, actually – everyone who tackles that city has to do that "city of broken dreams" thing, it’s not optional. Gar Haywood does it beautifully in his new book, Cemetery Road, for example. Hmm, I just thought of another interview question for him on Saturday.

  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    The book I just finished writing jumps all over the globe. Sao Paulo, Istanbul, London, Chicago, Thailand. I can’t imagine the book even working had I used imaginary cities.

    But I also think it’s only important to capture the essence of a city. Accuracy is necessary, I believe, but not to the point that — as others have said — every turn is dutifully recorded.

    It’s much better, in my opinion, to simply include little details that make a city stand out. In Chiang Mai, for example, people can often be seen traveling via tuk tuk, a kind of motorized rickshaw — which is a nice detail that paints a quick picture.

    I grew up in Hawaii and one of my favorite shows was, of course, Magnum P.I. Well, I can’t tell you how many times Magnum took a left turn in Waikiki and wound up on the other side of the island. A shortcut that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.

    But beyond the touristy bullshit, they got it right in spirit. And that’s all that really counts.

  7. James Scott Bell

    Brett, I set my books in L.A. because I grew up here and there is no greater noir city on earth. I like to go to the locations I mention, take lots of pics, get the smell and feel. I do get a lot of appreciative emails from peole who live here and, even more, who have moved away but may remember this or that place. It’s a nice bonus.

    But I do not hesitate to make something up if I need to. I love the story of Lawrence Block, in an early Tanner book, seeing a typo in the galley about Tanner in, I think, some little town in Checkoslovakia. He talks about the little "Tobbo shops." Block meant to write Tobacco shops. But as he looked at the typo, he thought, you know, that SOUNDS like something that might be there. So he left it in.

    And he got letters from people saying, "I remember those Tobbo shops too!"

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Location, location, location. I love making the city a character in the book. I had a lot of fun with it in my sequel to Boulevard, which was set in San Francisco. I once heard a comedian say that L.A. and San Francisco are having a war with one another, only L.A. doesn’t know about it. So, it was fun to put my L.A. cop in that setting, making him a fish-out-of-water.
    I put all the great local, North Beach landmarks into the book, like City Lights Bookstore, Cafe Trieste, the Cable Car Museum, Fisherman’s Wharf, etc, and I placed many of the book’s important scenes in those locals. However, I ended up having to fictionalize some of the locations for legal reasons — I couldn’t insinuate that the owners of a particular establishment were, say, involved in human trafficking or murder. I’m not going to win any fans that way. So I did a lot of what Brett is talking about — I set the story so firmly in the reality of the city that I was able to fictionalize other elements and make it work. And I agree with Brett’s mentor – the truth, while often exciting and hard to believe, rarely tells a convincing story.

  9. Pete

    I think that giving a sense of place whether real or fictional is what’s really important. I’ve often wondered if authors have ever really been to the places they’ve talked about anyway and I don’t really care one way or the other. But when describing known landmarks in a real city accuracy is important. I would hate for an overzealous fan to want to do a tour of places visited by characters in a book (a la Brown’s Da Vinci Code) only to realize some don’t exist. Of course Brown’s fans didn’t have this particular problem. I also remember reading a book awhile back, sorry can’t remember the name, where key events took place in a cemetery. Though the cemetery and the location of the killings was allegedly real, the author notes that he purposely obscured its location to prevent people from seeking it out. I think that taking a creative license with facts when writing fiction is a necessity. Not all places described in books have to exist, they just have to appear like they could be real.

  10. Louise Ure

    “Don’t let the reality of a location get in the way of telling a good story.”

    Amen, brother.

    In Forcing Amaryllis I made up a restaurant whose menu changed every day based on a letter of the alphabet (C = carrots, carne asada, cottage cheese, Coquille St. Jacques) and readers are still writing to me trying to find it in Tucson.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    I started off intending to set the first Bobbie Faye book in the New Orleans area. Then Katrina wiped out most of my landmarks and frankly, I was a third of the way through the draft when I realized that a lot of those places may never come back. (Many didn’t.) So I switched it to Lake Charles area, which had not been as affected by Katrina, and a month later, hurricane Rita barreled through there, destroying a tremendous amount of stuff. I had to leave it at that point because the book was on its way in to editing, though I was able to fix some things in copy edits which had changed so radically, I knew they wouldn’t be the same.

    I set book 3 partially in Baton Rouge, and then we had hurricane Gustav knock the crap outta this city.

    I don’t think it will come as a huge surprise that the city in book four is FICTIONAL. Take that, Mother Nature. I’d like to see you try to screw that city up.

    I have a friend who said that every time she put a restaurant in a book, it shut down right before publication. So in her fourth or fifth book, she picked one that had been open 30 years, was a landmark, beloved, etc., because she knew they wouldn’t close. Right before publication, the owner died and the family closed it down.

    So no matter how accurate you are, cities change. Everything’s fluid. It’s best to give a SENSE of place. After all, no one wants to read the Mapquest version of a novel.

  12. Jake Nantz

    I would agree (having read all three of yours) that the most important aspect is the feel. I’ve only been to DC of the locales you wrote, but I had a decent sense that YOU had been to all of them, several times (and my wife and I are jealous…you suck). I had that sense because you either captured, or created, the mood of the city and the effect it had on the plot and the cast of characters.

    I also have to agree with Cornelia. Make the aspect of the commute interesting rather than 100% correct. I think sometimes writers get a little overzealous about proving they know their city. At least it sometimes seems that way.

    As for me, well I hope I capture the "smallish city" life of the south’s "major" cities in my books well. I hope so. But if it’s not 100% accurate, then I at least hope it’s well-written!

  13. Dana King

    It has to be real enough for me to suspend my disbelief and allow me to accept its existence for the purposes of the book. On the page, Ed McBain’s Isola is as real as Chandler’s Los Angeles or Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.

  14. Nancy Laughlin

    Hey, cool Brett, thank you.
    I asked this question for two or three reasons. One is that I want to write a mystery one of these days (I’m mostly focused on YA fantasy right now) set in the worst sections of a city like Oakland, CA. I don’t really want to spend a lot of time getting to know that area, but I want to have the feel right. And what I think you saying is that the feel is more important than the exact details anyway. I can write dialogue all day long, but setting and worldbuilding are my biggest weakness.

    Another aspect of this question is accuracy. I’ve known writers who gave up writing about real cities because fans would write to complain if they got one detail wrong. I also know readers (like my father) who will stop reading an author entirely if they get important (to them) details wrong. One time for my dad, it was reading about a General in the Navy.

    But again, I think you’re saying put in the landmarks, but leave out the turn right here or left there. That makes since to me. Streets change, get blocked, re-routed, etc. but landmarks, usually, remain.
    Thanks again Brett!

  15. Allison Davis

    This was the perfect post for me as I am struggling over how much detail to put in my SF 1958 book…I got out street car maps, neighborhoods, who was where when…and when it seems to get to be too much, I hear Harlan Coben in my head ("we just make this shit up") and I relax again. I use the reality of that time to set the stage but only throw in a few real nightclubs, hotels and history to help set the stage. Like Stephen, I don’t want someone relatives coming after me for some of the bad stuff that goes down…and some bad stuff definitely goes down. /So it’s a constant struggle in the work, this is very helpful (and reinforcing). Great post and timely for me. many thanks.

  16. anonymous

    Brett Battles Location….And Wins!

    You are so absolutely right about everything you said in your post. I’m sittin’ in my armchair and traveling to Natchez and New Orleans with Greg Iles, to Baton Rouge with Toni, to Arizona with Barbara Kingsolver and Louise. I will admit that I gravitate towards Bay Area and SF stories before L.A. based books but that is my stubborn NorCal arrogance. David Corbett does a good job up here. His fictional Rio Mirada avatars for a well known area. But I can hear those sad jazz riffs flow down the canyon and watch the fading wee hour L.A. lights with Harry Bosch. Cornelia’s Madeline goes from Syracuse, to the Berkshires, to Manhattan. She roams around. Her character says "There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them." But I can feel and hear the snow-crunch winter in The Crazy School, just as she described it in her scathing Feb. in New Hampshire blog. Cornelia agreed with you in an old interview when asked how she got her ideas…she basically said that a writer should write what they know. It’s true. It comes through to the reader if you DON’T know. I can see Victorian London through Holmes. Smell the Santa Barbara (Santa Teresa) salt air on a morning run with Kinsey Millhone.

    You writers take us ‘there’. I think that spending too much time on the locale detail is a waste of effort. I never look that closely. (There is usually too much going on to stop and examine!) You have said that some people DO… as in looking for a certain restaurant mentioned in your book. You should pat yourselves on the back for THOSE kinds of compliments!! That’s total writers’ ‘gotchya’ !

    I firmly believe that the reader only needs to ‘smell’ and ‘feel’ a region to ‘know’ it. Get in the characters’ shoes and step in the shit. Too me this is accomplished more by reference to an area’s colloquialisms, culture base, family structures, mode of dress and through the characters’ thoughts and actions. This is where we are informed what is ‘typical’ of a region. Behavior and language give us the flavor. This comes from the writer’s knowledge and comfort in their chosen location. Street names don’t matter. In fact, I think it is sometimes better if names are fictional but suggestive.

    Another thing that I believe is that the allure of a chosen locale for a story can be completely dependent on the writer’s impression of it. Good or bad. Cornelia took shit from readers who loved their Syracuse. She portrayed it as a piss hole. That is ‘Madeline’. Take her or leave her.

    The historical mystery sub-genre is a different deal. The factual accuracy is what transports and educates the reader. Brings them back like an old photograph to the social and political arena of that time. Laurie King is a master at this. I am THERE in post-1906 SF earthquake tents and Chinatown’s city-within-a-city, as Mary Russell’s memory starts to return and street names and building details are brought to life. I am there because I have already seen the actual photos of those days and King knows I KNOW. You can’t make up history. (Unless you’re one of those nutz who believes there never was a holocaust) King’s historical accuracy in location is amazing in detail, yet her protagonist is completely fabricated. Sherlock Holmes had a wife? Who knew!

    I think that the location can be anything you want. It is the CHARACTERS who must to be ‘real’. Set ’em down anywhere and move ’em around….but you better understand PEOPLE, the old, the young, the sick or robust, the good and the evil, the whole mishugena nature of humanity. Detail THAT and we will believe.

    Like you said, Brett… Just tell me a good story!

  17. anonymous

    Note to Allison Davis: For a real feel of ’50s SF, it is ESSENTIAL to research the archives of Herb Caen columns in The San Francisco Chronicle. Read his book, ‘Don’t Call it Frisco’.

    Just trying to help. I moved to the Bay Area in 1956. One did not have one’s morning cup of Folgers (our SF coffee brand) without The Chron folded to Caen’s column. You will find good stuff there.

  18. Allison Davis

    Anonymous, thanks much for the tip. I moved to SF in 1976…but still read Caen with a lot of pleasure and even was in it once or twice…

    I’ve been research what whiskey everyone drank….now Folgers for coffee (save for the Trieste, which opened in 1956)…

  19. BCB

    Description of locations. The parts I usually skip when reading. The parts I have to remind myself to include when writing. [sigh]

    I agree it’s more about the essence or feel of a place than the physical description of its parts. And completely agree with anon (wish all you anon’s would somehow differentiate yourselves from each other, btw) that capturing the speech and behaviour of the characters is more important. Well, to me it is.

    This made me laugh: "…in THE SILENCED (the next Quinn novel, title not necessarily final, and tentatively out later in 2011), London, Paris, and northern Minnesota play big parts."

    It’s like one of those puzzles: which one of these things doesn’t belong? Have you been to northern MN, Brett? Is the story set in winter? Because that place in winter is sort of like Atlanta in summer. You have to experience it to get it right. I’m looking forward to reading that one. 😉

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Brett

    I’m with you on the less is more aspect of locations. A flavour is great. Any more, and you’re writing a travel guide. Someone took me to task recently for setting part of SECOND SHOT in Boston and not writing about every restaurant in the area…

    My goal is to describe something that people who are familiar with the place will recognise – may even have passed every day on their way to work – but not necessarily realised what they’d seen. It’s the photographer in me, I guess.

    And Toni – stay away from setting a book in my town, you jinx ;-] We already had 140+mph winds through here a couple of years ago, and we don’t want ’em back!

  21. anonymous

    BCB. What makes you think that there are more than just the one Anonymous Bosch? My borderline schizophrenia?

    > ; – }

  22. BCB

    Anon, usually your voice is very distinctive and I’d recognize it anywhere. Really. [And it’s nice to see you again. 😉 ] But sometimes you’re a bit more serious and then I’m not sure.

    And so far as I can tell, we’re all borderline schizophrenic. Some of us just seem to have longer borders. Or share them with friendly countries. Or have vast bodies of water on the horizon. But we’re all on the edge of something.

  23. anonymous

    BCB You will recognize the ‘voice’ of my alter ego in the last comment left on Dusty’s post yesterday.


    I lurk behind Anon to avoid responsibility for my totally ignorant and bullshitful remarks.

  24. kit

    this is something I did worry about, maybe not so much the location as the flavor of the people in it.
    I went with the, write something you don’t know about….and I don’t care how good your research is…if you miss the nuances of the people….it shows, to the people that live in that area.

  25. Brett Battes

    Thanks, everyone, for the great comments. Sorry, I was away from the computer a good part of the day. BCB…my father is from Northern Minnesota so I have a bit of knowledge on winter there, though in the book they are only there in the fall. But, yeah, it was fun writing London, Paris, and Northern Minnesota. I was wondering if anyone was going to comment on that!

  26. BCB

    Brett, I still have family up in the western part of northern MN — Nielsville, Beltrami, Crookston, Breckenridge/Wahpeton. The only place I’ve been (other than the ocean) where you can see the curve of the earth. Maybe your people know my people…

    Anon, you’re one of the least ignorant people I "know" — no comment on the BS. [grin]

  27. anonymous

    I would almost come out of the closet for that compliment BCB. But I can’t be had. I yam what I yam. Pure bovine burger. Free ranging ranch latkes.

    ; – }


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