Actual Settings Fictionalizing A Place Thats Real

Should you choose a real place or an imaginary one in which to set your story?

One could argue that there is no such thing as a real setting. An author who sets a story in an actual place uses it as a model on which to base a story world. He selects certain details, ignores others, and invents still more, bending reality to suit the needs of the story. The place depicted in fiction may bear considerable resemblance to the one on the map, but it is being viewed through a filter or a lens that distorts it, if ever so slightly.

At a writers' conference, I appeared on a panel with five other authors who have written about San Francisco to discuss how we used the city as a setting. One of the group liked to play upon the cliches—the tourist attractions, the reputation for quirky behavior. Another preferred to take readers to corners of town they'd likely never discover on their own—warehouse districts, industrial zones, and rundown neighborhoods. Each of us drew our characters from different population groups. Finally one colleague pointed out, "What's clear is that we don't write about the same city at all. Read our works and you'll visit six different San Franciscos." We all fabricated the fictional city that would best serve the theme, mood, and tone of our own stories. Yet someone familiar with the city would find that each of these San Franciscos rings true.

Using an existing place as your setting gives you several advantages. First, it gives you lots of raw material to work with— props and scenery and characters and story ideas. It also assists in reader identification. People enjoy reading about locales they know, which is why books tend to sell well in the cities or regions where they are set. There is a pleasure in reading about a beach and knowing you've felt that very same sand between your bare toes, or encountering a description of a sidewalk cafe almost exactly like the one you frequented during your student days in Paris.

In exchange for these advantages, using a real setting obligates you to be accurate. Because readers are familiar with real places, they will recognize when you get them right. If you get something wrong, they will also notice and they'll call you on it. Worse, they might then distrust the rest of what you say.

The appropriate balance between authenticity and fictional license depends on your particular story. You must get the flavor and feel of the place right. What often works is to go ahead and invent the micro-environment while keeping the macroenvironment intact. In other words, take liberties with the smaller elements—replace the building on the corner with one of your own, open a business, install a new street or a park, as long as you make them consistent with the kinds of buildings, businesses, and infrastructure that would be found in the real place. At the same time, keep the large identifying characteristics in place. These include not only the geography, the landmarks, and the neighborhoods, but cultural elements and ambiance as well.

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