Tonight’s guest blog post is brought to you by humorous mystery / romantic suspense novelist and ‘how to’ writer Morgan St James.
Location, Location, Location
When writing fiction, locations are important whether the book or story is light and funny or technically detailed. It is one of the areas dotted with landmines if descriptions or references aren’t right. The reader might not know an ion from an atom or a tort from a tart but the possibility exists they know the Empire State Building isn’t in Brooklyn. Okay, that’s carrying it a little far, but the point is, depicting a location correctly requires research. A character should never take a freeway where one doesn’t exist. An author unfamiliar with the good and bad parts of town, could place a corporate executive’s sumptuous home in the middle of the worst crime section of the city.
It is always best if the writer either lives in the area they are writing about or at least has visited it and has a clear mental picture of the state, city, town, street or neighborhood. Find out about quirks in the area, perhaps something it’s known for that isn’t common knowledge. The desirable and undesirable aspects. Make it as real as possible.
When I placed a scene in the town of Cotati, California (U.S. A.) I’d never been there but researched its history, read everything I could find, looked at photos from different eras and tried to get it all right. In the process I discovered it was known for the annual accordion festival and that a hippie fashion statement known as the Cotati look had been very popular at one point in its history. After the book was published, as fate would have it, I met a woman who was actually from Cotati, and had read my book. She said she was sure I’d been there and wanted to know when. That told me I’d gotten it right. Even if your book is fantasy or sci-fi, all of its characteristics are what you see in your mind, but create a location the reader can feel.
Back on earth, take the time to research. Use the internet, find photos, speak to people who have been there. If it is a different country, find out about customs. For example, the first time I went to England a nice man helped my friend and me when we got lost. We inadvertently insulted him by asking if we could buy him a drink. He said in England offering to buy one a drink as we had meant giving him the price of a drink as a tip. When we explained we were suggesting that he join us for a drink everything changed. See what I mean?
Movies, TV dramas and comedies are often shot in places totally different than where the story is set so they are not necessarily reliable for reference. Travel shows like Rick Steve’s series are much better for reference. Locations are the inspiration for one of my writer friends. She sees places that “call” to her and beg to be written. From that point, the bones of the story evolve. You can feel a first hand experience in what she writes because her locations are as much a part of the story as the plot and characters.
By all means, don’t make the mistake of choosing a place, only doing some cursory research and then writing it wrong. I once read a book that opened in Maastricht, Belgium, a city many are unfamiliar with. The author portrayed it as dark and dank—a depressing place the protagonist felt he had been exiled to. The location helped to set the scene for the character’s state of mind, right? Wrong. I happened to have spent three days in this medieval city and it was fascinating with amazing architecture. Not even close to the picture the author drew. I asked why he used Maastricht when I’d assumed he’d never been there. He asked how I knew he hadn’t been there, and I had to say, “Because I have been there and you got it wrong.”
On the other hand, crime author Robert Crais had scenes in Marina Del Rey, California in one of his books and to my delight the protagonist happened to be driving down a street where I’d lived. The street has some unique features that are not apparent on a map. Only one who had been there would know what they are. I loved that story because not only was it extremely well-written, but every detail of the city was perfect from the beach to the nearby Hollywood hills. It made me feel like I was walking the streets with the characters.
Sure, not everyone would have recognized the locations. For example, most had probably never been on my street, but because the author obviously had been he was able to make it completely three dimensional. Keeping that in mind, creating fictional towns, streets, neighborhoods and points of interest is always a good option in fiction. You can parallel many of the characteristics the location in the story must have by creating something similar but nonexistent. The author is the only one who has really been there so any description is the right one. However, if you have set it down in the middle of a real place, make sure that all of the details for the surrounding area are correct. For example, don’t have someone winding through a mountainous two lane road, when in reality there is a multi-lane highway in that location.
Thank you, Morgan. That was great.
She writes the comical Silver Sisters Mysteries series with her real sister, Phyllice Bradner, has written several novels on her own, and over 500 published articles relative to the craft of writing and people in the industry, as well as the book Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction.
Her most recent books are Who’s Got the Money, a Finalist in the USA Best Books Awards, co-authored with Meredith Holland. It a funny crime caper about embezzling from the Federal prison system and the upcoming La Bella Mafia, a true crime book co-authored with Dennis Griffin as told to them by an amazing woman, Bella Capo.
St. James is an entertaining speaker, presents workshops and frequently appears on author’s panels. She edits and publishes of the online bi-monthly eZine Writers Tricks of the Trade and writes columns for the Los Angeles and Las Vegas editions of Examiner.com.
All of her books are available at Amazon worldwide and many other online bookstores.
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