NPR has an occasional series where they take a look at movies whose settings are practically a character. For instance, In Bruges, which tells the story of two Irish hitmen who are hiding out after a job in the town of Bruges, Belgium (I hope I’m remembering the right country). Bruges is a beautiful medieval city, with Gothic cathedrals, a canal and who knows what else. Sometimes it’s hard to follow the action because you’re looking at the scenery. It’s a real town, and if I become a world-famous author, I just might have to take a trip there to see it for myself.
On the other hand, the movie War Eagle, Arkansas uses the real community of War Eagle, but builds it up into a town, rather than a rural community. They did it by using settings in various towns in the area: the high school baseball diamond at Fayetteville, several scenes on the square in Huntsville, plus some others filmed in Berryville and some rural settings. They took a collage of real towns and formed it into the fictional town of War Eagle, all to tell a story based on something that actually happened in Little Rock. It’s a good movie, if you haven’t seen it.
Books do the same thing with settings. Stephen King inserted an entire county—Castle County—in Maine for his characters to gallivant around in. It included the towns of Jerusalem’s Lot (I think, but don’t quote me on that one), Derry and Castle Rock, and, in Under the Dome, Chester’s Mill. Plus a whole slew of rural settings. Derry, the big setting for the book It, had features from Portland and Bangor, such as the huge fifty-foot statue of Paul Bunyan.
Ben Rehder, who writes the Blanco County mysteries, set in—of course—Blanco County, Texas, uses the real towns in the largely rural county, though how much invention he uses, and how much he changes things, I can’t say.
I bring all this up because I’m always curious just how “real” the setting is in any novel I happen to be reading. Of course, when I pick up a sf/f book, chances are pretty good the setting is entirely fictional. There are always exceptions, of course, such as in urban fantasies like Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, set in Los Angeles. And, of course, there are sf ideas such as the future San Francisco, where Star Fleet is headquartered in Star Trek.
In his novel The Shimmer, David Morrell—the man who wrote First Blood—uses real phenomenon—unexplained glowing lights—that occurs outside the town of Marfa, Texas, but puts it in the town of Rostov. I haven’t checked, but I suspect Rostov is a fictional town.
There are advantages to doing this kind of thing. For one, you can arrange the town any way you want it. Stephen King goes into quite a bit of detail about Derry. And, of course, it allowed him to virtually destroy Castle Rock in Needful Things. Sure, people destroy real towns in books and movies all the time, but it’s easier to destroy a fictional town. No consequences. No throwing the readers out because they know New York City is still standing. It’s not cordoned off as it was in the movie Cloverfield. (No, I’m not name-dropping for the sake of it. These are examples I’m familiar with.)
One of the authors in our group, Claire Croxton, has novels set in such diverse locales as Greece, Japan and Alaska. As I understand it, these are places she’s lived. How much of the real details she uses, I can’t say. I’ve never been to Greece, Japan or Alaska.
My Pipeline duology is set largely in Northwest Arkansas, where I live. I’ve said this before, but I set it here because of an editorial I read in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that told of how we’re part of the pipeline for Mexican drugs making their way north and east. I took that idea and ran with it.
I think it might be one of the reasons I was able to write the novels in something like five months: I didn’t have to do much invention when it came to my setting. Yeah, there are times when he goes other places, such as Tennessee. I based those scenes on memories of trips across I-40 in the late 80s and extrapolated. As for Lyle’s trips to Mexico, well, there are probably Mexicans who will laugh at me, because I had little choice but to base my settings on things I’ve read or seen in movies and documentaries. And I may have done parts of Texas a great disservice, too.
On the other hand, the novel I’m working on now, Spree, is set all along I-10, and I’m having to more or less make things up out of whole cloth. The only parts of I-10 I’ve ever been on were the stretch between the Louisiana state line and Houston and—maybe—the stretch between Lake Charles and New Orleans. And that was back in the mid 80s—a long time ago, and I’ve slept several times since then. The trip to New Orleans, for the 1984 World’s Fair, only happened once. The trips to Houston were a little more frequent. I saw several concerts in Houston. But, what did you do when you went to heavy metal concerts in the 80s? You partied. Tends to muddle up your memories.
Besides, I wasn’t driving.
To be honest, I don’t really like to alter locations. In small ways, I don’t mind. For instance, Lyle finds an abandoned house in the first Pipeline. The house is real. It’s one I discovered last year while working the Census, and I’ve described the location pretty much as it really is (or was at that time). But I moved it from a remote location in Madison County to one in Washington County. I wanted Lyle to be leery of Madison County, though he really has little reason, these days, to be so. Likewise, the large house Lyle builds throughout the latter parts of the story is fictional, based on something I’d like to live in. I’m never specific about the location, except to say it’s in a remote part of Washington County, and I excuse this by having keeping its location secret for Lyle’s safety. He’s made a lot of enemies, after all.
But, see, when I was getting into reading, for a long time I read only sf/f. Not a big deal as far as location. You make ’em up. But then I got into Louis L’Amour, and one of the things he’s known for is putting real settings in his novels. He explored a lot of the West and the landscape inspired his writing.
That set a standard for me. I gave thought to trying my hand at a Western. I like that pioneer spirit, the sense of being on the frontier, all that. Yes, in a lot of ways, L’Amour’s West is a mythical West, and he probably makes his good guys gooder and bad guys badder than either really was. People are complex, after all, and the Ming the Merciless bad guy, who does evil for the pure sake of being evil, won’t fly these days. For good reason. Not even Hitler thought he was doing wrong . L’Amour’s characters weren’t that extreme, of course, but he needed larger than life people in his stories. And, I think, he had a basic belief in the human spirit that I don’t. Probably why I’ve chosen to write crime novels.
Spree starts in LA, goes through—so far—Phoenix, then on through Tucson (though I don’t have any incidents there), then takes a side trip up to Roswell (partly to throw law enforcement off), then back down to the 10 across Texas, where things start really heating up. And not just because they’re crossing Texas in the summer.
I’ve never seen any of these places, so I’ve fictionalized them for my own purposes. I don’t much like this—I’d prefer using real locales—but since I don’t have access to Google Earth, and don’t have the money to go following I-10 across the country, with the requisite side trips, I don’t have much choice.
I suspect this kind of things happens a lot. Even when we use real locales, we adapt them to our fictional needs. The story is all, you know. When Lyle takes his trip to Santa Monica, I set the action mostly on the 3rd Street Promenade—because I’ve been there. I left the names of most of the stores vague because there were simply too many to remember. The ones I did, such as Johnny Rocket’s, I tried to locate where they really are. But it’s been almost four years since I was there, and although I was very close (just up on 5th Street), I didn’t go down there very much. What little I did, I went to the Barnes & Noble on the corner of 3rd and Wilshire to pick up coffee at the Starbucks. And to browse books in the store, of course. I used the Starbucks as a meeting place for Lyle to meet Joaquín Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, because I knew the store.
I won’t even dive off into the subject of using real people in novels. I will say that I was careful to portray El Chapo as being very human, even sympathetic. Yes, he’s a drug lord, and he’s probably more ruthless than I portray him. But I had to make him my Joaquín Guzmán, not the real life one. I hope he likes it. I’d hate to have Sinaloa sicarios coming after me.
Nor will I even talk about the prospect of historical novels. Setting a gang novel in modern-day LA is one thing. But what about, say, a post-war novel in 1948? I understand LA was a lot smaller in those days. Guess you could go read a Raymond Chandler novel. But I’d hate to do the research it would take to get one to be authentic.
I could go on and on about settings I’ve read or seen, but I think you get the idea. This post wanders around a little more than usual because, to be honest, I’m low on inspiration this week. I’ve been busy critiquing my daughter’s YA novel (if you don’t buy it when it gets published, I’ll hunt you down and kill you) and dealing with a bout of insomnia brought on by chest congestion. I’ve finished the critique, and the congestion seems to be clearing up finally, so maybe I can get creative again in few days.
I didn’t mind the critique—I’m probably Jesi’s biggest fan and always will be—but I could have done without the chest congestion.
Hopefully I’ll be more coherent next week. In the meantime, you can read my daughter’s blog at jesimarie.blogspot.com (it’s in my links), and Claire’s site is clairecroxtonromanceauthor.wordpress.com.