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: