Location, Location, Location

Hazlitt barn 7 27 12
Barn near Seneca Lake, NY.

How does a story’s setting shape it? I have projects set in a variety of places. Northern Minnesota and the south of France. Several in California, including San Francisco, a beach town in Southern California, and a fictional city that is based on a real place.

I love a book that transports me to a new place, where the setting is as much a character as the people. Last year, after I read The Informationist by Taylor Stevens, I had to learn more about West Africa because the author’s incredibly vivid descriptions took me there. It made me want to know more about the counties of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea and other west African counties.

When reading a book, it’s not too important to me if an author gets a detail wrong about a location with which I am familiar. But when it comes to writing, I don’t want to make those mistakes — or get bogged down in trying to track down the smallest of details. Does Market Street intersect with Mission or Embarcadero? (Embarcadero, if you were wondering.) Is there a park that borders a neighborhood where I can put my heroine’s family home?

In the Dead of Night
San Francisco at night.

Is anyone going to care that I’ve created a city park and a dead-end street in San Francisco? Probably not. If I have a sunny afternoon or clear night skies … in June? Maybe more so.

I have found it less stressful to just base a fictional city on one I know well. This gives me the freedom to change things up as needed. Do I need a park near the courthouse? I can build one there. Would this chase be more dramatic if the cars had to pass over a bridge? What if it were a drawbridge over a river? That can happen.

Italian bakery, North Beach, San Francisco.

Instead of trying to find just the right real location, I am trying to create just the right feel of the location. The way the streets look at night. The way the weather changes during the day. The sound of the traffic or the smell of the ocean a few blocks away. The types of stores along the street, the pace of the residents walking along the sidewalk. It’s just as much fun to find the personality in a fictional location as it is to uncover who my characters are.

So, do you have a favorite place to set a story? Is it real or fictional? As a reader, do the little details of a familiar place have to be perfect or are you more concerned that an author captured the feel of a setting?

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