Setting: Real or Imagined?
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.
Or 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.
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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