Setting: Real or Imagined?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

One of the first issues writers confront in planning their novel is where to set it. Is it better to set it in a real place or to dream up an imaginary town? Let’s explore both options.

Many writers over the years have opted for creating imaginary settings. One of the reasons is that it gives them more freedom and they are less likely to get letters correcting their placement of the drugstore on the northeast corner of Main Street instead of the southeast corner where it moved in 1910. It takes far less research when you are building your own setting from the ground up.

The fun thing that occurs with imagined towns is that sometimes the readers figure out the town on which your imagined town is based and that town becomes famous. If you read Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books as a child you probably know that Deep Valley was actually based on Mankato, Minnesota where  the Betsy-Tacy Society is now restoring the homes that were the inspiration for Betsy’s home and Tacy’s home.

IMG_7819Or take Lauraine Snelling‘s literary town of Blessing, North Dakota from her Bjorkland family books. It didn’t take the residents of Drayton, ND long– from the way the river runs and the topographical descriptions in Lauraine’s books– to figure out that the imaginary town of Blessing would have been located in a field just outside of their town. They adopted Blessing and Lauraine. Each year they celebrate Blessing Days. They even created a Blessing Square with the sod house described in the books, a handcart, a Blessing museum and other historical structures.

Debbie Macomber‘s Cedar Cove was based on her hometown of Port Orchard, Washington. In her book, Once Upon A Time, she tells about her setting:

Several years ago, when I sat down to work out details for a new series of books I wanted to set it in a town that felt homey and familiar to my readers. The advice always given to writers is to write what you know. I figured that was as good advice as any. I created the fictional town of Cedar Cove, a thinly disguised version of my own hometown, Port Orchard on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington. I say thinly disguised because Cedar Cove has a library with a mural that bears a striking resemblance to Port Orchard’s library and mural. Funny thing. And it has the Pancake Palace, which looks an awful lot like Port Orchard’s Family Pancake House. In fact, Cedar Cove’s famous DeeDee’s on the Cove is reminiscent of the real Amy’s on the Bay in Port Orchard. And there’s a real marina and a real totem just like the book.

You can tell I had fun creating this semi-fictional town. In all, I wrote twelve books plus a Christmas book in the series. What surprised me was that as the books gained in popularity, readers began making their way to Port Orchard to visit A Good Yarn— the shop named after one of my books; Amy’s on the Bay and The Family Pancake House.

It wasn’t long until the town fathers took notice. They came to me and suggested we stage an event— that we “open up the town” for readers who wanted to visit. They weren’t kidding. A committee formed and in August of 2009 a week-long Cedar Cove Days Festival took place with readers coming from forty-two states and seven foreign countries— all to celebrate a fictional town “in a land far away.”

Recently, I’ve been on a marathon BBC Midsomer Murders television series kick. I’ve so fallen in love with the setting of the Midsomer villages, I actually did a web search on the setting to find out where they filmed. To my delight I found tour companies who give Midsomer tours to the areas where the series is filmed. *Someday*

Those are examples of some of the possibilities that creating a setting can do at its very best.

But setting your novel in a real town or city has its advantages as well. Readers love to recognize familiar landmarks or much-loved settings. I have clients writing about Lake Tahoe, towns in England, a real library in Washington, and many well-known locales. When I wrote a series of teen books I set them in real places and had my characters stop in real stores and eat in real restaurants. One of the pluses for the author is you get to go back to those places and give them a copy of your book and encourage them to become part of your informal marketing team.

But what about you? If you are a novelist, which do you prefer, doing the research and setting your story in a real place or creating your own setting? As a reader, which do you like best? Can you think of some other settings that became famous as a result of a book?

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101 Comments

  • Linda says:

    I prefer to use a fictional town to prevent any unauthorized image of real places or people that may not be happy with such – depends on plot. But I have added real details such as the highway route being used or famous landmarks nearby.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s one of the reasons writers often fear using the familiar. I wonder if there’s ever been a legal case attempted against a writer?

      • Linda says:

        I believe there has been several. I have read accounts of several authors being sued – one especially as she used real names and forgot to change some when editing.

  • I love the quote from Debbie Macomber. “You can tell I had fun creating this semi-fictional town.” Using inspiration from the familiar and real to spin off into a world of imagination describes my approach to fiction. It is something like daydreaming on paper.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      What is nice about semi-fictional is that if your book goes big you can say to people “I based that diner on [name of real diner]” and then you get the benefit of the real diner being so proud they keep pushing your book.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    I had a question. What if you are writing and your setting is a real town, and your protagonist has a conflict with a person who works at a real location in that town. Does that create a problem or hard feelings? Your main character must deal with the grumpy waitress who get’s upset when she comes in to use the phone after falling in the lake and is forced to buy two sample platters while she is standing dripping on the linoleum in order to use the phone… What do you think? Does putting conflict in a real town setting cause…conflict?

    • Might be a problem with libel, if you use a negative portrayal of a person or business that can be easily connected to a real person or business in that town.

      Remember that Marjorie Rawlings was the subject of a libel suit arising from her description of the Florida ‘Crackers’ she described in “The Yearling”.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I’d be careful of this. You don’t want to use a real person, a real setting or a real business if there’s going to be a somewhat negative portrayal. But don’t forget, you can always put a fictional restaurant in a real town.

      • Kiersti says:

        Aha! That answered the question I was going to ask–whether it was okay to set a story in a real town but invent a fictional business located in the town. So that’s acceptable, then?

        I guess for me, Prince Edward Island would be a setting I’d love to visit thanks to Anne of Green Gables–both the books and the movies. :) One I’ve actually visited would be DeSmet, South Dakota, or “Little Town on the Prairie” of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame–though that wasn’t exactly fiction. Still, her books certainly put that little town on the map!

        Thanks for such a fun and informative post, Wendy…yet again. :)

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    My towns are based on places familiar to me, but I might actually combine elements of two places. And if I can’t remember the placement of something, I just ad lib.

    What’s even more fun for me than towns, are my fictional houses. Each character lives in a house I know. There’s the house I grew up in, Aunt Bess’ house, the little cottage my great grandmother lived in, my great aunt and uncle’s house, and so on. I love revisiting those places that were dear to me and it makes it SO much easier to have my characters move through a familiar space.

  • I’m not thrilled with thinly-disguised versions of real places, because I used to live in one.

    Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet’ mysteries were set in Santa Teresa, California, which was Santa Barbara with a new nameplate. Having been a longtime resident of SB, I found the literary device intensely irritating, kind of ‘cutesy’. It was almost like the author was asking “Can you guess what place this really is?”

    I thought she would have done better by simply setting the books in SB.

    A much more effective method is to use a real town or city, but imaginary settings within that locale. Andrew Greeley does this quite well; the fictional parish in Chicago resonates with several real ones, but never closely enough to tempt serious comparison.

    I use real towns and cities, and real ‘prominent’ places (major landmarks, institutions, iconic stores and museums). For neighborhoods and the like, I avoid too much detail. Instead of saying that the protagonist’s house was “on the north side of tree-lined Pedregosa St., a few blocks east of State” I’ll just say it was in “a leafy older neighborhood of dignified homes” and leave it there.

    It is important to get real setting right. I have read some real howlers in actual settings – in Santa Barbara (again) action took place on “Laguna (St.), between Anacapa and Anapamu (streets)”.

    Great, except Anacapa and Anapamu intersect. Oops.

    I’d envy SF authors, except…

    Arthur Clarke set “Earthlight” (a cracking good story) on the Moon, and his descriptions gave a real and haunting sense of place.

    Unfortunately, even though he wrote it with the best information available, his sharp and craggy lunar mountains don’t exist. The topography has been softened and rounded by meteoric bombardment; it’s anything but jagged.

    Does it make the book unreadable? Hardly, but I think it’s because the story doesn’t really need those details to work, and his descriptions are so well-crafted that one could WISH the Moon to be that of Clarke’s imagination.

    • What about the exotic location I live in? NObody will mix this place up when I write a contemp/rom/com set in, oh I don’t know…Monte Carlo.

      • There is magic in the most ordinary places, and the more powerful the magic, the more ordinary the place must look, because magic is shy, and doesn’t like to work when it can be plainly seen.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Great insight, Andrew. When you grow up in an iconic town (I’m a fifth generation San Franciscan) you get critical, don’t you.

      Don’t forget, a novelist can get away with much as long as there’s an author note in the back. And this can be added to later editions. For instance, Clarke might say that he his imagined moon may be quite different from what scientists are beginning to learn about our lesser light.

      • Very true, that an author’s note can be very helpful in defusing irritants. Greeley used them to describe his imaginary parts of Chicago.

        And when I go to that wonderful City of the Broad Shoulders, I always walk the streets of Greeley’s imagination, and see his characters alive and moving, shadows in the sunlight.

  • My books are set in Boston, New Mexico and Arizona. Tip of the week, do your research in November. NOT IN JULY. 60F is way easier to deal with than 115F. Oh, and wear a straw cowboy hat in New Mexico in July, the wool felt one will try and melt you.
    The Boston locale is vague, but the Arizona and New Mexico locations are specific-y-ish. The bulk of book one takes place ‘an hour’s ride outside Flagstaff’. which pretty much means anywhere in any direction. But I used period specific names and businesses for that extra layer of colour. Babbitt’s department store was a pearl in a dusty place. The Coconino Sun newspaper even gets a mention.

    Book 2 takes place in a prison camp outside Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Thankfully, I’ve been there, and may or may not have climbed a fence to get on to the grounds. :D

    The other settings for book two are Fort Defiance, New Mexico, and Monterey, California. I’ve been to Fort D, and, I do believe, I’ll be visiting Monterey in October.
    And the funniest thing is I chose Monterey as a location at least 18 months before even thinking about planning a trip there.

    God has a divine sense of humour.

    • If weather’s going to be a factor, I think it is a good thing to visit the region for research during the time when that weather’s prevalent.

      115 F is not fun for most, but it’s important to realize that there are things you simply can’t do during a summer day in the desert. Going without water is one of them.

      For a vivid description of what life is like without water in the desert, look at the diary left by Robert Toner, co-pilot of the “Lady Be Good”, a bomber that disappeared into the Sahara in 1943 and was found sixteen years later. Toner, and the rest of the crew, died. And this was April. Here’s the link –

      http://ladybegood.net/diaries/index.htm

      • I looked at that. So sad, eh?

      • Elissa says:

        I agree with you about getting a true feel for the weather and climate, Andrew. When we were at Ft. Campbell, KY (living in neighboring Clarksville, TN) I remember trying to explain why 102 degrees didn’t feel hot to me. The humidity made the shade feel cool, and a breeze was like air conditioning. In the southwest, all the shade does is screen you from the sun, while any breeze is like a blow drier. Speaking about the sun, unless you’ve been “high and dry” (over 5000 feet elevation and less than 20% humidity) you’ve never really known sunshine.

      • The nice thing about visiting in summer, and then almost winter was getting a perspective of the temperature variations. It was either so hot I wanted to melt, or so cold I felt right at home. ;)

      • He did base one of the Twilight Zone episodes on the Lady Be Good.

    • One of the most haunting stories to come out of WW2.

      The airplane still exists – the Libyan government – under Ghaddafi – moved it to a secure location because it was becoming accessible to ‘adventure tourists’ who were vandalizing the wreck. Surprising, in a way, that someone we considered a cad should have a sense of tragic history.

      Also interesting is that when the wreck was discovered in 1959, the US Air Force (which then had a presence in Libya) took off some parts to re-use on other airplanes…at least two of which subsequently crashed.

      One went down in the Med, and among the only parts found was an armrest…

      …from the Lady Be Good.

    • Oops. I pout the reply in the wrong place…

      Rod Serling did base a Twilight Zone episode on the Lady Be Good.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      And weather sometimes becomes a character of sorts. Southern fiction especially. Remember reading Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? There was more sweat in that book than any other I had read up till that time.

  • The novel I’m working on right now takes place in a “semi-fictional” town. I’ve given the town a new name, but I’ve based it strongly off my home town.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      That could be very fun when it comes to launching that book. Hopefully your home town folk will love the book and give it a great hometown launch.

  • For the middle grade historical novel I’m working on now, I made up a fictional New England town. This allowed me to have the grandfather of the main character be a founder. It also means the main character has a good deal of pressure place on her from relatives simply because of the reputation the family has in the community.

    I have a question for you, though. In a series, could/should you ever blend a fictional and real settings? The first book I wrote in a chapter book series is set mainly in Florissant, CO. For the second book, I thought about creating a fictional town whose name, Bitter, is also a word used to describe many of its residents. The main character of the series would be traveling through Bitter on his way home and most of the book would be set there.

    Thanks.

    • Cheryl, I wouldn’t use the name ‘Bitter’ as the ‘official’ town name. It’s liable to be seen as a way to avoid having to develop the town’s character through the development of its residents’ individual characters. It might be seen as a literary crutch, in that way.

      One way around this might be to use ‘Bitter’ as a nickname – say the town was originally called ‘Glitter’ by a developer hoping to lure people to a place where gold might be found, and when it was seen as a dead-end locale, an unhappy resident altered the sign, and it became locally known as Bitter.

      This was done in a movie recently filmed in my town of Belen; the fictional town was called ‘Redwood’, and the sign on the set was crudely altered to ‘Deadwood’.

      Something like that might say all you need to say about the town, and its current ambiance.

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        Love this idea, Andrew. You are absolutely right. Subtle and revealing is so much more interesting.

    • As a PS – if you use the ‘modified sign’ idea, you may want to allude to the altered sign being weathered, and having an air of permanence.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I think you could do this, depending on what holds the series together. If the series is held together by place– as in a series of towns in a small county in Kentucky and three are real and one is fictional, then not so much.

      But if the series is about young cowboys in the west, say, mixing fictional and real shouldn’t matter. Right?

  • Because my first novel was based on a family tale, I went ahead and used the actual name of the town–Port Angeles, Washington. So far I haven’t had any corrections or complaints. It’s been well received there. Several Port Angeles citizens have said, “Please, put us on the map for something other than Twilight.” Quite a few readers have picked up the book because of its location. It’s either a place they want to visit or a place they’ve traveled in the past. It gives them a connection to the story, even though the book is set in the 20s. So I think it helps with marketing. You do have to be careful with your research, but for me–that’s half the fun.

    My upcoming novel, Out of the Ruins, is set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires. It might be a little odd to try to set that in a fictional location. ;)

    • I love Port Angeles. :) I haven’t been there in 25 years, but I still remember it. :)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      And, in your case, you’ve found that using real places broadens your market to those who are closely connected to that place. BTW, San Francisco is a great market for regional interest. My brother writes nonfiction about San Francisco and has such a solid regional following that it guarantees good sales. DeYoung Museum always displays his books front and center.

  • My books are all set in Denver Colorado. I know it because I grew up there. I’ve done a little of what Andrew mentioned—creating fictitious places (stores and the like) within the real city. I considered setting my first two stories in a fictitious city, but I feel more comfortable writing what I know. :)

    What a fun post, Wendy. :)

    • You should set a novel in an outlet mall. From the POV of a poor Colorado woman scoring huge bargains then trying to get home without her friend hurling out the car window.
      Just a random idea.

      • LOL, Jennifer. I think that maybe that friend should have red hair. What do you think? :)

      • What a brilliant idea!
        Red hair, an Arab maiden name, and she hangs out with a blonde chick named Takenaka??
        Oh, wait, and she cannot possibly keep down a bacon cheeseburger unless she whips open the car door and breathes in and out like a nut-job… with several hundred witnesses??

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Plus it always gives you a tax deductible* reason to go visit your old stomping grounds.

      *Disclaimer: I am not a tax consultant but it seems to me it would work. (Is my accountant rolling his eyes?)

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    I set my novel Bridging Two Hearts on Coronado Island because that’s where the SEAL base is and my character falls in love with a massage therapist at the famous Hotel del Coronado.

    When I visited Coronado halfway through the writing, I didn’t need a street map, I knew everything so well from Google maps. I introduced myself everywhere as writing a book about Coronado–and the Hotel del gave me free reign in the spa to learn everything I needed for my character.

    I included real places in the story and when the book was published, sent copies to every place listed with a note as to the page (the gelateria, for example, played a significant role). I even sent a copy to the visitor’s bureau.

    Many people, including those who love Coronado, have told me how much they appreciated the detail.

    Just this weekend I was in Seattle and stopped by the Klondike Gold Rush museum–among other things, I wanted to thank them for their excellent website which I used in the writing of The Gold Rush Christmas. They had photos on the wall that were pertinent to my story.

    The rangers were thrilled to meet me, took down all my information and were so happy to have a “real” author in their museum. My husband had to drag me away, we were having such a good time.

    For publicity purposes, yes, I think setting a story in a location is a good idea, unless you can pull off Lauraine’s Blessing. :-)

  • Hello! My most recent work, and only fiction to this point, was set in a real place … our home and property. This helped me greatly … being my first fiction. It gave me a framework to begin with, and it helped my imagination to soar … I realized I didn’t have to stick to the “truth” … that I could invent some things along the way, too.

    Based on a true story, we just had to put one of our beloved characters to sleep in real life … and just coming home from an emergency appendectomy (me) … our family could use prayers.

  • Jenny Leo says:

    My town of Sandpoint, Idaho, is the setting of Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” although she called it something else. It’s fun to pick out recognizable landmarks, such as the train bridge that plays a big part in that novel. But by calling it something else, she freed herself from having to stick slavishly to the facts.

    My books (all two of them, lol) are set in Chicago. In one, my main character works at the Marshall Field department store. I have given myself many new gray hairs trying to get every detail perfect, and still I know I will get something wrong that some knowledgeable reader will point out with glee. But I like nothing better than rooting around in old archives, etc., so I’d be lying if I said research was all work and no fun.

    • Rooting around in old archives is a delight for sure.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Oooo, fun. I hope you’ve been watching Selfridges and The Paradise for all the little details of early department stores.

      • Wendy, I so enjoyed The Paradise. I believe another season is on the horizon.

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        Jenni, I think I like The Paradise better than Selfridges. Jenny Leo, you know this kind of avid TV viewing bodes well for your setting. :-)

      • Jenny Leo says:

        Of course those rabid Marshall Field fans will be the ones to know I put the Millinery department on the wrong floor or whatever. I had to delete one of my favorite and funniest scenes that was set on an escalator, when I found out that Field’s didn’t have escalators until the 1930s. It was one of the most painful cuts I’ve ever made, but I just knew that some smarty-pants would pick up on it and I’d feel ashamed if I left it in.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      BTW, Jenny Leo, when you use a setting that is featured in popular TV shows or movies– like a department store– be sure to point that out in the proposal. It helps editors know that there is a proven keen interest in what you are writing.

      • Jenny Leo says:

        Yes, I’ve had my eye on both those series. Also, since Marshall Field was taken over by Macy’s, there’s a loyal tribe of “we miss Marshall Field” nostalgia buffs with their own Facebook pages, etc., at least some of whom will surely love my story.:)

  • Linda says:

    I’ve just finished writing the first draft of a cozy mystery. I set it in an imaginary village, but in reality it’s the village we lived in many years ago. It just fit the bill.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      There is something wonderful about the village setting for a cozy. (You have watched Midsomer Murders, right?)

  • My completed MS is set in a real town, and my historical WIP, although not set in a particular town, takes place in a present day state park. Because the peninsula has been preserved from encroaching development, many old buildings remain, and the landscape is mostly unchanged.
    When stories are set in real locations, unique research opportunities present themselves in the form of museums, libraries, and immensely helpful docents and librarians.

    I had never heard of the Island of Guernsey before reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
    Jan Karon fashioned Mitford after the real town of Blowing Rock, NC and her stories made me want to visit.
    Jamaica Inn really does reside on the Cornwall moors.
    And who didn’t want to travel to Prince Edward Island after meeting Anne Shirley? :-)

    • PEI is gorgeous!!!!

      Bragging moment/claim to fame (that I mention constantly)…*I* got kicked out of Green Gables. For reals. Me and my deaf MIL.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Absolutely, says the person who has made more literary pilgrimages than she cares to admit, including PEI.

      Janet and I spent a week last fall on Edisto Island, SC, after we read book after book about the area. Travel agents should fall at our feet in gratitude for the attention we bring to potential travel sites, right?

  • My WIP is set in a real place. I loved going to the location and doing in-depth research and found that as much as I thought I knew about the place, visiting it and speaking with experts at the historical society truly gave me depth I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I’m creating fictional businesses in order to avoid slander, but I’m excited about the real location.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      And hopefully you’ll introduce yourself around town like Michelle Uhl did. Regional interest can sometimes be just the spark you need to get things hopping.

  • Elissa says:

    I write fantasy, so of course the setting isn’t real –BUT– that makes it all the more important to make every detail look, sound, smell, taste, and/or FEEL real.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I’m so glad you mentioned this, Elissa. Imagined places have to feel more real than actual places where the reader already has a point of reference.

  • Peeps, you know you’re sick when you miss-spell your own name…and leave tonnes of comments…shaming your family and then going back and fixing things and leaving notes about it because you’re ADD that way…

  • Christine Dorman says:

    In my first novel, I used a real place (Brooklyn, New York) for the setting. It proved to be a bit challenging for the kinds of reasons you alluded to, Wendy, in your example about the drug store. My parents were from Brooklyn, and I had visited there a few times as a child, so I had my memories and theirs, but that wasn’t enough. The book was set in the mid-1960s. My parents moved from Brooklyn to Fort Lauderdale in the late ’50s. I began writing the novel decades later, so trying to find out what a specific neighborhood looked like in say 1967 proved to be a problem, especially since Brooklyn has worked at improving formerly run-down neighborhoods.

    My current novel setting is easier since it is fictional. Since part of the story takes place in an enchanted land, that was a necessity, but part of it takes place in a 21st century human town. I’ve used a couple small towns that I’ve lived in as the basis for the downtown of the human place. Google maps street level has been a great tool in helping me describe the rural landscape. I’ve virtually traveled around a country area in Ireland to describe the area in the book.

    For the enchanted land, I first drew a map so I knew where each of the five parts of the land were in relation to one another. Then I did paintings of some of the places and characters. Doing the visual first helps me with the words.

    One example of a fictional place that was based on a real place and became famous is Darrowby, the setting for James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series of novels. The book is set in the Yorkshire Dales. Herriot said he combined a couple of places in the Dales to come up with Darrowby, but Thirsk in particular has become known for being Darrowby. Fans of his books can now visit Thirsk and tour his home and surgery. The Dales, in general, became so well-known because of his books that they are now referred to as “James Herriot Country.”

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Isn’t it fun to travel in our imaginations? I always loved what C. S. Lewis said about “sehnsucht” that inconsolable longing for a certain place– a place we may never have even visited.

  • “It takes far less research when you are building your own setting from the ground up.”

    I have to disagree with this. Proper world building, which is what a fictional town is, probably takes as much time to do well as would research into a real town. Fantasy is popular for writers to write, in part, because they think they can avoid research. But building the fantasy world is just as time consuming as research for another type of novel.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      You are right, David. I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of world building but that is exactly what it is.

      Okay,nobody gets a pass on research.

  • Research is King. I write historical fiction. (My wife calls it hysterical fiction)

    I will read a hundred books (used of course) of the era (the books setting) and less than 10% of what I learn ends up in the story.

    The secret to researching an era is knowing . . . which 10% to use.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Absolutely! We need to know all of it and use only the things that move the story forward. Good advice, Donnie.

  • Sherry Kyle says:

    I have used the real towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz, CA as settings for my novels. I wrote a real bridal shop into my debut novel, Delivered with Love, and the store owner was THRILLED, especially when I gave her a copy. She displays it in her shop to this day. So far, I haven’t received any complaint letters so I take that as a good sign. My next novel is set in Carmel, CA in 1910. I hope I make the town proud. Watercolor Dreams releases in October.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      What wonderful settings, Sherry. And what fun getting to do your Carmel research!

      That bridal shop is the perfect example of using setting to help with grass roots marketing.

  • Skye Taylor says:

    I love both. I am currently writing a series set in a fictional town, but in my mind I know exactly where it is. Hopefully a few of my readers will guess. But I’ve also set books in a real place. One was a time travel and my heroine came from Boston, Mass. She ended up in 1775 and was shocked to discover this place she’d been taken WAS Boston, just not the Boston she was familiar with. That was fun, too.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      If you are keeping the inspiration for your fictional town a secret, it might make a fun contest for your readers. Guess the inspiration for the town of . . .

      I like the idea of same town, different era. Many authors have done this with multiple timeline stories. (I just finished The Forgotten Garden– a perfect example.)

      • What did you think of The Forgotten Garden? Any other multiple timeline stories you’ve really enjoyed?

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        I’m usually not fond of multiple timelines because it feels like just when you are on the edge of your seat, you jump to another era. And if not handled by an expert, it can be confusing.

        With The Forgotten Garden I listened to it on audio so I found I really had to pay attention and not drift off as I listened or I might lose track of whose generation we were in. But the book was wonderful.

        Can’t think offhand of other multiple era story lines but it’s the end of the day and I’m brain-fried.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I have a bad habit of not paying much attention to location details in the books I read – except when they are set in a place I’m familiar with.

    In one instance, I had more knowledge about the geography of the author’s setting, and his errors detracted from an otherwise acceptable story.

    In another case, the author’s use of real towns helped give me context that aided in my appreciation for the story.

    In reading the memoir of a local author, I appreciated all the local references. In one scene a stranger asks her husband how to get to the corner of Park and Rose.

    “Aha!” I say to myself, with a smirk. “Park and Rose are parallel!”

    Then in the book, I’m delighted to read her husband say, “Park and Rose are parallel!”

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Thanks for offering your comments from the reader’s point of view. I think you are spot on. That is how I read as well. Mistakes take away from the experience and well-researched details add to it.

  • Judy Gann says:

    This post and everyone’s comments are such a help to me. Thank you.

    I’m using a real town about 10 min. from my home. Convenient for research. :-) I was once the town’s children’s librarian and the people have been excited about my WIP and extremely helpful.

    One of the characters owns a bistro. I’m using the real name of the bistro in my book. The owner gave me menus and has offered to carry the book in their small gift shop. This bistro/former drugstore (yes, there’s an old-fashioned soda fountain) is a gathering spot for townspeople.

    I often spend time walking the streets of this town to deepen my understanding of the flavor and personality that make this town unique. Well, okay, I enjoy the gorgeous views of Puget Sound at the same time. :-)

    The town hall is attached to the small library (key to my story)next door. It would be the perfect place for a book launch. A former coworker schedules events at the town hall. :-)

    This is a town that’s proud of it’s history–lots of the historical “firsts” in Washington happened here. I plan to ask some of the residents to read sections of my rough draft to check for errors about the town.

    Thank you for the reminder about the author’s note in the back of the book.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Great examples, Judy. It’s all about engagement. You’ve got perfect set-up for regional excitement.

  • Sylvia says:

    I love it when authors use real places in their books. I recently re-read “Sisterchicks in Gondolas” by Robin Jones Gunn. While I was reading I kept Google maps open to street view on my desktop computer. I set the little map man at the place where they first arrived in Venice. Going up and down those canals and alleyways put me in the story in an entirely new way. I saw where they ate and found the place where they stayed. I lived Venice for those few days.

    It works beautifully if the author gives you vivid enough description to set the tone and scene. Some writing is so vague in its description of places that I lose interest. Does this usually happen when the novel is plot-driven rather than character-driven?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I don’t know if it is specific to either plot driven or character driven but I’m with you, Sylvia, I love to visit new places in the pages of a book. I want to feel like I’ve been there with all my senses– I want to smell it, taste the food, hear the sounds, see the gardens, etc.

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