Thursday, June 17, 2010
Writing Settings with Elizabeth Spann Craig
Writing Settings—Should You Use Real or Made-Up Locations?
For some writers, settings can prove a real challenge. Should you use a real place to base your setting on? Or make up a setting location completely?
I’ve used both a fictional setting and a real setting and found pros and cons to both.
Real Setting Pros:
• I found it a little easier to make the setting come to life. I could write about places I’d actually been—and convey what I’d seen and heard and felt in a very solid way. For my Memphis Barbeque book, Delicious and Suspicious, I tried to make Beale Street come alive. There weren’t just things to see there—there were barkers at restaurant doors calling out the evening’s specials. There were young men doing back flips down the street. There was music coming out of every door. It was easy for me to relate these things because I’d been there, seen it, and heard it.
• It’s nice to be able to market a book to a specific town or readership. When you send ARCs to the town’s newspaper, it’s great to be able to say that you’ve set your story there.
Real Setting Cons:
• You can date your knowledge…and your book…if you’re not careful. I felt very safe mentioning the Peabody Hotel in my upcoming release because it’s been around since 1869. And Graceland isn’t going anywhere—that was a safe mention. But I was careful not to bring up other places that might not have the same degree of longevity. The economy has been brutal for restaurants in particular, and I don’t want to date my book by mentioning a place that might go out of business.
• Readers might contest the setting information that you put in your book. You have to be very careful and very accurate.
Fictional Setting Pros:
• You’re dreaming up everything about your setting. The freedom that you can do anything with your setting—put in a lake, make a famous botanical garden, stick in a ski slope—can be a nice creative trigger.
• No one can argue with you about your setting because it’s completely made up.
Fictional Setting Cons:
• Making up a place from scratch can be a lot of work. In my Myrtle Clover series, I had editors question me more than once about the physical layout of the town. I had to end up sketching it out (and I’m a really terrible artist) to make sure I hadn’t written anything that just didn’t make sense as far as layout.
• It can be a little harder to make the fictional setting come to life. You really have to brainstorm what the location looks like. And that takes time away from your plot and characters.
What if you’ve decided to write a setting based on a real place? And…what if you’re not a resident of the location?
Sometimes it’s fun to set a novel in a place that’s interesting or exotic. My editor thought Memphis, Tennessee, would be an exciting place to write about and I agreed. While I’d felt very safe writing a fictional setting for my Myrtle Clover series, there’s nothing quite like having a real, living, breathing town to write about and try to capture on paper.
So how do you go about researching a setting?
Nothing beats visiting the location, of course. I took a family trip to Memphis last summer when I knew I had a series based there. I spent hours walking through the city, soaking up as many of the sights, sounds, and aromas as I could. I made sure I saw different parts of Memphis, too—not just the parts the tourists see. And I took pictures of everything. I looked like the biggest tourist on the planet. But I just didn’t know what I might need for a future book. I took lots of notes and lots of pictures.
Talk to a resident. This is a great way to find out little nitpicky things that you might not be able to learn online. I needed to know if someone could reasonably walk from one part of town to another—and I asked a resident to get the answer. If you’re on Facebook, you could ask a general question: “Anyone know someone who lives in Memphis?” and you have a good chance of finding someone who has lived there, currently lives there, or has a friend who lives there.
Google Images. Google Images can be a great tool if you’re trying to write about a very specific building or location for your setting. I wanted to see the number of trees a particular park had in it…Google Images gave me the answer.
Google Street View. Here again, Google comes to the rescue if you’re trying to realistically portray your setting on a street level. You can put in an intersection and use your cursor to pan the street you’re interested in. You can get a great feel of the type of place it is—how much commercial property or residential property the area has, etc.
Contact the Chamber of Commerce or the Department of Tourism for the town. Those folks are usually only too happy to help you out. They can mail you brochures, talk to you about the town, etc.
Have a librarian help you find books and articles on your setting if you don’t want a high-tech search or are writing something historical.
Fact check with the specific location you’re writing about. Yes, I did call the Graceland staff to do some fact-checking for Memphis Barbeque book two. And they were gracious enough to give me information on the seating capacity of the wedding chapel on the grounds, along with other information.
The important thing is to set your book in a place you’re excited to write about—whether that’s somewhere from your imagination or a real place you either know or want to discover. Which type of setting do you usually prefer?
Thank you for visiting today, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin as Riley Adams, the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink (under her own name), and blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010. Delicious and Suspicious releases July 6, 2010. As the mother of two, Elizabeth writes on the run as she juggles duties as Brownie leader, referees play dates, drives carpools, and is dragged along as a hostage/chaperone on field trips.
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers Kitchen
Elizabeth Spann Craig