I passed by a downtown corner the other day, a location I hadn’t visited in a few months, only to find that nothing looked familiar. The coffee shop, the clothing store, the restaurant I knew so well – all were gone, replaced by a plywood and chain link fence protected construction zone.
It reminded me of the challenge of writing about real places, something I’ve chosen to do in my mysteries. I want my reader to believe that the story I’m telling could happen tomorrow, and a certain amount of realism is necessary to accomplish that.
Although I visit most of the places I write about, it’s not enough. A fire can destroy a landmark building, or as happened to my corner, urban renewal can change the landscape. So how to work with real locations in fiction, especially when even careful research may not be enough?
I admit to a certain vagueness in my descriptions of stores, and restaurants. Although I can generally count on a street name, civic building or hospital to remain relatively unchanged over time, businesses come and go, even without construction! But sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk, especially if a location plays a key role in a mystery.
Thirst wouldn’t have been the same story in any other location than the Slocan Valley in southeastern British Columbia near the U.S. border with Washington, and the city of Nelson is at its centre. Nelson is a unique, special place that has its quirky side, and it was as much a character in Thirst as Alex Graham and Eric Keenan! And so, I chose to name both a well-known coffee shop and restaurant, because the coffee shop especially, is an intrinsic part of Nelson and it conveys the true essence of the city.
Many authors set their stories in fictional cities or locations that are just similar enough to real locations that they work as successful substitutes. An unnamed bedroom community outside of San Francisco that resembles Sausalito or Oakland in everything but name, or a Texan town near sprawling cattle ranches, that could be Austin, Laredo or a dozen others. These types of settings allow a reader to conclude that this place must be the city or town they know so well, but because it is never identified as such, they forgive the author’s use of non-existent names.
There’s also a sense of place that can be suggested by general locations, like Stephen King’s use of fictitious small towns in Maine. There’s an attitude and way of life in Maine that he builds on that doesn’t require the use of a specific town.
Other authors take the plunge and generously sprinkle real places into their story. It’s a gamble because you can all-too quickly date your story, and not every business will thank you for naming them. It’s important to remember that a grisly murder in a café, or a poisoning death in a romantic restaurant, can bring irreparable damage to those businesses.
If I use a real business, I always try to put it in the most positive light possible. In addition, I take the time to ask permission from the business owner, including the story synopsis and the specific excerpt in which the business is named, with my request. Generally, I’ve found them to be very supportive and down-right excited by the prospect of inclusion in a locally-set thriller, however it doesn’t always turn out that way. A winery surprised me by declining permission for a single mention of their excellent chardonnay as a romantic dinner choice, but I understood their reasoning. They had worked hard to create a brand and they wanted to protect it, and that meant that they took extreme care as to where and how their wines were mentioned. This particular winery told me that they had even turned down several movie producers too, so I was in good company!
The nature of my mysteries requires real locations, but a small detail like a local winery isn’t going to make or break the story. I’ve come to weigh each choice carefully, to risk naming real businesses, street corners, parks and other elements, only if they’re truly important to the character of the location. Otherwise I retreat to vagueness and leave the rest to my reader’s imagination.
Published: Buried Under Books, December 1, 2016