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Stir Up Your Setting–REAL Fictional Settings

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Where does the line between FACT and FICTION get blurred in our writing? Is there a line? How FACTUAL does our FICTION have to be?

Over the past fifteen years, I have developed a fictional city in Louisiana where most of my contemporary novels are set (I have set two in Nashville, but even in one of those, one of the main characters is from the fictional city and goes there for a visit). When I started out with it fifteen years ago, it was a small, sleepy town where the biggest thing going was the state university (the University of Louisiana—go Pirates!). Why? Because I was in college at the time so the thinly veiled fictional story I was writing about me and all my college buddies centered around activities at school.

But after I left college and my personal focus changed, the focus of my town changed. I moved to the Washington DC area. As I experienced more of life, I needed more things in my fictional town for my characters to experience (they couldn’t be driving 3 or 4 hours to Baton Rouge or New Orleans all the time, after all!). In fact, my town has grown into the “third largest” city in the state—what with the influx of people relocating there from New Orleans. (See how real life can affect our fictional settings?)

In using a fictional setting, I have been able to introduce new stores, streets, companies, etc., as I need them in my stories. I do, however, keep a detailed street map so that I don’t have Spring Street running north to south in one book and east to west in another. I also have what I’ve titled a “visitor’s guide” in which I list all my restaurants and where they’re located (three primary locations: downtown, Old Towne/Town Square, or University Avenue near the mall), shopping, grocery store names/locations, schools, city/parish government structure, population (including diversity), top employers, churches, and so on. I even keep track of the socio-economic status of neighborhood/subdivision in town; that way when I need to “visit” a working-class character’s home, I have them living on Oak Alley Drive in a rental house, rather than in Acadiana Park which is full of huge old Victorians and newer starter-mansions.

Because I am a very visually-oriented person, one thing I’ve done that has helped in describing my setting and keeping the descriptions consistent throughout my stories is finding photos online. Yes, my city is fictional, but it incorporates pieces of a lot of other places I’ve been: a Riverwalk like San Antonio, TX; a revitalized Old Towne/Town Square area like Natchitoches, LA (the town where Steel Magnolias was filmed) or Savannah, GA; a major commercial mall/shopping area like Cool Springs Galleria in a Nashville suburb; a century-plus old college campus like LSU; and neighborhoods built during different periods: Victorian, arts and crafts, 1960s/70s ranch styles, etc. These are things I can find photos of–and I find as many of them as I can to make my readers truly believe Bonneterre, Louisiana, exists.

Here are a few examples of setting description from the first chapter of Happy Endings Inc.:

Anne Hawthorne . . . crossed her office to the gilt-framed mirror that reflected the view of Towne Square from the converted row-house’s front windows.

The heat and humidity typical for the first day of June in central Louisiana wrapped her in a sweaty embrace.

She . . . entered the newest five-star restaurant in Bonneterre.

Winding through the crowd of patrons awaiting tables . . . Anne’s right heel skidded on the slate-like tile and she wobbled, her foot sliding half out of the black mule. . . . A young woman in a white tuxedo shirt and black slacks came out from behind the high, dark wood stand and threw her arms around Anne’s waist.

George Laurence perused the menu, surprised to find the wide variety of dishes listed. His experience with Italian restaurants in mid-sized American cities primed him to expect spaghetti, lasagna, and fettuccini. So far, Palermo’s Italian Grill in Bonneterre, Louisiana, appeared promising.

The chair across the table scraped against the ceramic tiles.

Anne juggled her duffel bag, attaché case, purse, stack of files, and cup of gourmet coffee she’d stopped for on the way home as she climbed the back stairs to her apartment.

I just started a WIP set in a little town in the foothills of Tennessee. It’s a contemporary, but I wanted it to have the feeling of antiquity that is important to the story. So, Saturday a few weeks ago, I went and picked up a map of the Middle Tennessee area and charted a route to drive through several little towns in the general area where my fictional town is supposed to be located, wanting to see if the layout and style of the buildings I had in mind would actually work. After a couple of hours and a few misses, I finally hit a home run: Charlotte, Tennessee (which is where one of my very dear friends lives, or else I never would have thought of going there!). It has the perfect feel for the town I’m creating—it’s not quite nestled into the valley I’ve envisioned, but that’s okay, because it’ll keep my town from “looking” just like Charlotte. I parked at Courthouse Square and sketched a map of the town’s center (an important aspect of my story—okay, yes, I like town squares!), then went and got some posterboard that has hairline blue gridlines on it and started mapping my fictional town: what buildings are on the square and what businesses they house. What’s on the opposite side of the valley from the college on the eastern bluff, etc. I’ve had to set it aside for a couple of weeks to work on other projects, but when I get back to it, I plan to go online—or find some old architecture books for a dollar or so apiece—and paste images of each of the buildings on the posterboard for visual reference. And I’ll go back to Charlotte and get my friend to give me a tour.

Describing a fictional setting for readers is like giving someone directions how to get somewhere. If it’s a place we’ve never been or only been to once or twice, it’s going to be hard for us to explain with confidence how to get there, where to turn, how long it will take. If we’ve lived there many years—or all our lives—we can do it turn-by-turn (“take Highway-22 West to exit 52/College Ave. Turn left at the top of the exit, and stay straight on College Ave.—it will become Oak Alley Lane after the next light”), with lots of landmarks (“turn right on Bocage Avenue–there’s a service station–Buddy’s–on the near corner and a library on the far corner . . . if you get to Tezcuco Place, you’ve gone too far.”), and down-to-the-minute time estimates (“it takes me about fifteen minutes to get home from downtown if I take the freeway, twenty if I take surface streets.”).

What do you know about your fictional setting? How confident are you in knowing every nook and cranny of it? Is it like the town where you’ve lived your whole life, the streets where you learned how to drive—and learned every shortcut to get to all your favorite spots? Or are you feeling like a new resident, still figuring out your way around? Do you know things about it that you’ll never include in your story?

  1. Thursday, May 10, 2007 12:46 pm

    There is nothing like eyeballing the terrain for yourself, is there? Last fall I took a trip up the Minnesota River Valley to inspect the settings for my historical, and it made a HUGE difference to my confidence in describing the lay of the land.

    Right now, I’m looking to create a town for POR. Your ideas of mapping the town and surrounding area are great. 🙂


  2. Friday, May 11, 2007 9:45 am

    I’m loving Kaye’s blog too. I learn so much here!

    Kaye, where can I find your books? Google is not being much help.


  3. Sunday, May 13, 2007 2:18 pm

    I love creating fictional towns! I have a little town in the Colorado Rockies where some of my characters live. I know every street, every store, every stop sign in that little town. They only have 2 stoplights, and the diner on Main Street is right across the street from the sheriff substation. The diner looks exactly like the diner in the X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” “.

    I also have a couple of characters who were Army brats, but their parents were both from here. I was able to project my excitement about our 14-screen theater onto them and it was so much fun.



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