Yesterday I was interviewed for an online book club podcast about my debut novel, A Dream of Death. One of the first questions they posed was “Is the Isle of Glenroth a real place?”
I absolutely love that question because it tells me the fictional island I’ve created in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides is so real on the page it could be an actual place. For me, part of creating a fictional world is fleshing it out well enough in my mind that I could literally draw you a map. I could show you the peat bogs near the ferry dock. I could point out Glenroth House, the island’s country house hotel, nestled in a glen near the south shore. I know how the Adventure Centre stretches along the eastern shoreline. I know who lives where—and who lived there before them.
Many crime novels are set in real places. The Maigret mysteries by Georges Simenon are set (mostly) in Paris. Margery Allingham’s suave, upper-class sleuth, Albert Campion, operates in London. Tana French’s Murder Squad detectives track down killers on the streets of Dublin. Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander solves crimes in Sweden’s southern province. My friend Andrew Welsh-Huggins sets his wonderful Andy Hayes mysteries in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Using a real place as setting requires a lot of research—even if the writer lives there. If you get something wrong—even the tiniest detail—you’re sure to hear about it from your readers. And there’s also the problem of offending people. What if an author uses a well-known hotel on Park Avenue as the center of a high-class narcotics ring? Could they sue her? Fortunately, only people can be libeled or slandered—not places. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make people mad.
The late Sue Grafton overcame the limitations of a real place by setting her Kinsey Millhone series in Santa Teresa, California, a fictional town based on Santa Barbara. That way, she said, she could “move real estate at will” and “change the orientation of streets” to suit the plot. My fictional island is based loosely on the Isle of Skye. If I’ve done my job, readers familiar with that part of the world will know where they are—and those who don’t can take an armchair journey.
So how does a writer decide on setting?
Plot often dictates setting. If you’re writing a thriller about terrorists planning to disrupt the seats of power in the U.S., you’re going to have to spend some time in our nation’s capital. If you’re writing a police procedural about a Scotland Yard detective, you’d better know London pretty well. But what about The Chronicles of Narnia or Alice in Wonderland or the Lord of the Rings trilogy? These call for world-building.
Novelist Alice Hoffman said once, “Place matters to me. Invented place matters more.”
If a setting is real, readers probably already have a strong mental picture. If the setting is fictional, the writer must create that picture through sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch—and more importantly, how those sensory details are processed by the characters.
That, for me, is part of the fun of writing fiction.
Do you have a favorite place you like to read about? I’d love to hear your thoughts!