Time for a new Writers Roundtable. This time we're going to talk about setting, in particular choosing a city for your setting in genre works. I've gathered input from horror, action, comic book, romance, etc. writers for this one because each slices this topic a bit differently.
Two special notes about this one:
1. I do believe this is our largest roundtable yet. (So stick with it, as there's a lot of good stuff in it.)
2. We'd like to issue a special welcome to comics scribe extraordinaire Brian Augustyn for his first appearance here on the blog.
Now, on to the fun and roundtabling...
Do you prefer to use existing cities and landmarks or create your own for your genre fiction? Why?
Scott McCullar: I actually prefer creating my own city for fictional comics – especially those in fictional realms with superheroes in costume and pulp action mystery men. I like the freedom of creating thrilling locations of my own to serve my story’s needs and to allow it to populate in the imagination of readers and myself.
I credit DC Comics with my interest because of their fictional locales such as Gotham City, Metropolis, Star City, and more. As well as characters like Dick Tracy and “The City” where he protects or The Spirit’s Central City.
Bobby Nash: Most of the time, I use what's already there, especially when setting a story in a major city like Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, places like that. There's a lot of latitude in using an existing major city. With smaller towns, I created one of my own for my novel Evil Ways with Sommersville, Georgia. I revisited Sommersville again in Deadly Games! and a recent book in my Snow series revealed that the title character and is friends grew up there as well. For 2018, I am planning a return visit to Sommersville, not only in Evil Intent, but in a series of stories led by Sommersville Sheriff Tom Myers. Sometimes creating your own place pays off.
Danielle Procter Piper: If my characters are in a large city, I prefer to use one that exists because everyone already has some idea of the place, so I don't have to spend much time describing it. When my characters are in New York City, everybody has a preconceived notion about the place even if they've never been there. I have one from Boston, and even if you don't know much about Boston, you know it's a large American city, old, historic, with seedy areas, and near water. It's like animals--if a character rides a horse, you should already have a preconceived notion about horses even if you've never seen one in person. If I'm writing sci-fi and invent a creature that serves a horse-like function, then I have to spend more time describing it and developing behavior for it so you know what I'm talking about. New York and Boston are familiar animals. In my first published book I have characters interacting just outside the fictional town of Snakebite, Montana. You needn't know much about Snakebite, but just the name implies it's probably dry, dusty, small, and somewhat unpleasant. So, small towns are easy to make up and craft to better fit your story. In my New York, some aspects of the City have been altered to suit my desires, but I do look up streets and landmarks to give the stories I write that are set there some weight...like adding a pinch of truth to lies makes them more believable. I simply try to make my small, fictional towns seem believable by basing them on personal experiences with small towns.
Michelle Brundage Weston: I prefer to create my own cities and landmarks. It makes it much easier to write action. I'm working on an urban fantasy pulp right now that takes place in NOLA and it's hell to write. Having to make sure your characters are going in the right direction on a one-way street is another layer of research.
Brian Augustyn: In comics, the tradition has been to use fictional stand-ins for real cities; Metropolis is Manhattan (above 42nd Street) and Gotham is Manhattan (below 42nd St.), Central City is Chicago, etc. At Marvel, even though they use New York, it was so stylized as to be effectively fictional. The benefits of this is that the creators are free to decide how the city looks, works, feels, etc -- we can even utterly destroy the city, without readers wondering why it doesn't reflect the fact that thr real counterpart city wasn't vaporized when the big summer crossover allowed the aliens to zap Portland to dust. Or at least to have the freedom we have to affect a fictional locale.
Aaron Smith: For big cities, I almost always use real ones. For small towns, I almost always make up my own, or, in the case of one series of novels, thinly disguise real towns from the area I grew up in, so that based on the names and descriptions, readers who happen to be from the same area will likely be able to figure out what towns I'm using.
David Ellis: I've mostly created my own settings. Mostly the self-created settings were so that I didn't have to be beholden to whatever an existing setting did or didn't have, but that's changed in more recent years as I've gotten more into doing research. That research (even if it's brief and not particularly extensive) will often uncover neat tidbits that I wouldn't have thought to include otherwise, so even if I'm dealing with a self-created setting, I'll pick one or more real-life analogs and work in details from that.
Bill Craig: I love South Florida because there is such diversity in each of the cities. Miami has a particular flavor that is far different than the zaniness of Key West. Tampa also has its own flavor and energy. Scorpion Cay, while my own creation, fits right into the south Florida mystique.
Tuttle E. Tejas: I love the romance in names, in imagery that city-names evoke. Eric Pete always makes up his cities/landmarks so he can write them to order--but he seldom names the city. It steals all the romance out of it.
Perry Constantine: I tend to use existing cities and landmarks but I've also created my own. It all depends on the kind of story being told.
Hilaire Barch: I've written both and done a hybrid of sorts in some pieces. I've created towns (urban fantasy, sci-fi, and a WIP Western romance), but had to decide where they were located on a real map, b/c geography played a part in plot construction. I've built entire fictitious worlds (sci-fi) with megalithic cities where anything goes, and I've used real places(sci-fi).
Ryan Cummins: To me it depends on the cities importance to the story. I have written several stories from different genres without ever mentioning the name or location of the city. I believe the cities relevance to my story can be just as impactful, if not more, visually as it can be narratively. Obviously, in a novel, this wouldn't be the case but as far as comic books go I don't much think it matters whether real or fictional.
Edward Ainsworth: I have always used existing settings. In the great tradition of Urban Fantasy, using an existing city with either a previously unknown element hiding underneath or utilizing Contrastive Banality, it can bring out something really interesting in the structure of the real place - a layer you don't always see when you walk through it.
Tobias Christopher: Nine times out of 10 I'll use my hometown of Indianapolis, mostly because I rarely see stories set in Indiana, and I feel like there's a fair amount to work with here.
PJ Lozito: I have to use real locations. I could never make up interesting, realistic geography. Also, it's good to put myself under the constraints of reality. I even consulted with a real pilot about flight time in a real city.
Robert Freese: I prefer my own city so I'm not locked into an existing geography. As the story evolves, if I need a subway or park with a Ferris wheel or whatever, I create it. I tend to not give my cities names, so readers from everywhere can decide for themselves if it's N.Y., L.A., Atlanta or Bumfuk.
Bertram Gibbs: I have used both in my stories, but prefer using existing locations. The geography and landscape is already set, which the readers recognize, versus create and map out a spot. In that, I have to build points of reference and follow them, which could change, based on the angle the characters see them from.
Don Mancha: I like making my own cities and peppering them with stuff from all over the world. Cause I'm a control freak.
Alex Washoe: Depends on the story. I've written real locations and made up ones. I tend to use some version of Seattle in a lot of my stories -- either openly or thinly disguised -- just because it's here and I know it well. But I'm currently researching Wyoming.
James P. Nettles III: I use real, large cities, mostly out of a love of destroying LA, but they give a good reference. I make up the small towns, lest I convince someone their neighbor is a creature of the night. For my heavier sci-fi and some thrillers, they are purely fictional.
Mark Halegua: I have a couple of characters set in various parts of NY city. Red Badge is set in a mid-country small city. The setting for the two unnamed characters was important since one of them, Kurt Kinnison, is a Pan Am security/Private (?) detective. The other, I won't name for the moment, is also a writer and lives in Manhattan. I like both since I'm able to get a feel for both locations in the 30s. Red Badge came before either of these two, and I felt a need to place him in a setting that, other than the general location of mid country, wouldn't be associated with any current city./ I even named it Central City - generic enough (yes, I know that's where Barry Allen Flash works, but not for a few years).
What are the advantages of using existing locations? The disadvantages?
Brian Augustyn: When I write prose, much of which is hard-boiled crime fiction, I prefer to use actual settings, largely because such use adds to the verisimilitude that keeps a suspense story immediate and realistic. I think that in a story about an advertising executive being wrongly stalked by an assassin, the reader may be yanked out of the story when it's mentioned that heads to Liberty station to catch a train out of New Holland, the Big Orange. A few writers have pulled that off, most notably Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) whose 87th Precinct cop-mysteries were set in a fictional Manhattan known as Isola. HE made it work.
I guess that a writer could avoid naming the city and simply allude to it without being specific, ("The off-duty cop turned down the street where the beloved ancient ballpark lay. He remembered with a smile how he came here as a kid to cheer on his team; lovable losers back then; a subject for ages to a mythic curse put on the little bandbox, supposedly by the Bambino himself. Several world Series wins lately had busted that myth to bits...") but ultimately you work too hard I think to justify the ability to write about a corrupt politician in a mythical Boston.
Tobias Christopher: Disadvantage: Not being able to accurately put into words the visuals that I see. Advantage: Being able to actually cause massive property damage without actually Michael Baying the hell out of it.
Edward Ainsworth: The disadvantages of using real places, is that if you're using a big City, like London, or Birmingham, Manchester of Canterbury, they're massive sprawling things that change regularly (London less so, to be honest). The advantage is that they're ready-made with a rich cultural history. I'm not going to pretend that I can make something like Bas-Lag with my own stories straight up, so having London to draw on makes it fun and also gives you a greater sense of realism to work with.
Don Mancha: The main advantage of an existing location is that it exists. The layout of the location and its culture are already established. Since you don't have to work on setting you can point your attention to other parts of your story.
This could be disadvantageous if you make a mistake geographically or culturally, and a local calls you out for it.
Scott McCullar: I think the advantage of using a real locale is that there is a built-in familiarity and it could be researched and both the history and the details of that real place add to the realism of a fictional story feeling “more realistic” as if it could possibly take place right here. A disadvantage may be that all that I wrote above could, in fact, play just the opposite in the type of a story one would want to tell.
I think about all the times I’ve seen in movies the White House or Eiffel Tower blow up. Or count the many many many times that the Golden Gate Bridge is or is almost destroyed during some climatic event – whether it is with the X-Men, Planet of the Apes, James Bond, Superman, mega-earthquake, Godzilla or some other alien or underwater giant space creature break the structure.
I guess that is supposed to shock an audience that there is danger in our reality.
Bobby Nash: Existing locations means there are people who will know them and will tell you when/if you get any details wrong. That was why I created Sommersville instead of using the existing city of Winder in Evil Ways. Winder did not have all of the locales I needed for my story so I created a new town where I could populate it as I saw fit for the needs of my story. I did not want the disadvantage of adding things to an existing town that weren't there and being called out for it. It was simpler to create my own. In the long run, it has paid off as I have revisited Sommersvile a few times now.
Bertram Gibbs: As said, the advantage is the readers will be familiar with the location. There are few disadvantages for me and the story.
Michelle Brundage Weston: The advantages: you already have a map. The disadvantages: you already have a map. Also, timing is critical. If your characters only have one hour to make it across town, they could be screwed depending on the city. In MB's made-up city, I don't have to worry how long it will take them.
Tuttle E. Tejas: Advantages of real cities: People who have never been to either, will have definite and geometrically opposed ideas between Honolulu and Detroit. Cities like Baltimore or New Orleans are characters of themselves and will (with minimum research for the non-resident) inspire/shape the story.
Disadvantages: You have to write around the city e.g. If you have Hero Man move from point a to point b in 20 minutes, in L.A. on a Friday, at 16:45 on the 405 the fans will call BS.
Hilaire Barch: The problem with real places is that you might include details that don't exist by the time the book hits print. Maybe you don't get it quite right and someone will wonder. With real places, it's better to merely drop a few details unless you are intimately familiar with the location.
Aaron Smith: The advantage to using existing cities is that readers will already have a sense of what they look/feel like. The disadvantage is that research has to be done!
Bill Craig: The advantages of using existing locations is that it can make people feel that they are part of the story, because much of the time, they may have been to a particular place and it brings those memories of their own experiences there. The disadvantage is if you get a detail wrong, you will get called on it every time, and "artistic license" is not something a reader will let you get by with.
Perry Constantine: The advantage of using an existing location is thanks to Google Maps, you can easily reference locations, streets, landmarks, etc. Of course, the downside is that if you personally haven't spent a lot of time there, you may not quite be aware of the little things locals might know. For example, if your character is using public transit and you choose a route you found on Google Maps, locals might scoff about how that's actually not a convenient route. You also might miss out on the personality of the city or not know about certain neighborhoods.
Danielle Procter Piper: Existing locations are great because there's less thought put into them--just research if necessary to get things right. I see no disadvantages because if you're writing fiction, people expect you to enhance or embellish things at least a little. I guess the only disadvantage could be over-use of a location. New York City falls into that category. that's precisely why I have another fictional character operate out of Boston.
What are the advantages of creating your own locations? The disadvantages?
Robert Freese: The downfall to using my own city is sloppy writing. You can write in too much convenient stuff for your characters and then you run the risk of losing your reader. Using recognizable landmarks, for me, is exploitable for cheap thrills; zombies in the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland, psychos living in the Statue of Liberty, whatever. That's fun.
Danielle Procter Piper: When I create my own locations, I can have as much fun with them as I like, so long as they remain believable enough that they don't disrupt the story. The disadvantage is that I must sometimes create maps so travel times and such seem realistic--an issue I believe they're having more and more with the Game Of Thrones TV show at the moment. Just glad I'm also an artist!
Bill Craig: Scorpion Cay is my own creation and I have been asked many times where it is located. My thought is that it is near Duck Key and can only be reached by a special ferry that runs between the two islands several times a day. The big disadvantage is that after 12 books in the Decker P.I. series, people want to actually go see Scorpion Cay.
Perry Constantine: The advantages of creating your own location is that you have no limitations. You want a gothic skyline? Go for it. You want tons of bridges? No problem. You want mountains within walking distance? Nothing stopping you. The disadvantage is you have no limitations and it can be difficult to keep track of stuff you've already established.
Hilaire Barch: In fictional places, you have to paint a more detailed picture unless the setting simply isn't important to the story.
Aaron Smith: The advantage to using fictional towns is that you can mold the place to be whatever you want it to be. The only disadvantage I've ever encountered was when I put a lot of work into creating a small town in Illinois only to later discover that there was already a town of that name but on the opposite end of the state. No big deal, really, I just had to change the name.
Tuttle E. Tejas: Advantages of creating your own locations: You want mountains, oceans, rivers, and deserts (oh, my) all in the same city? You got it.
Disadvantages? You have to use a light touch or go all-in and create a map. Same with a sense of place -- either lightly, hang the barest frame of place or wrap your character up in it, a la Elric or Phèdre nó Delaunay. Of course, both those characters are fantasy--where I think it is easier. But then Richard Stark did well with made-up locations in his contemporary crime stories, too.
David Ellis: If I'm writing stories about a real city or location, I like to use existing landmarks, street names, whatever I can use to convey the setting. I used to be a lot more vague with that sort of thing, but it led to uninteresting setting descriptions. Once I discovered that Google Maps/Earth existed, that really helped engage my imagination and helped with the research. Even so, I'm fine with completely made-up environments; it just means I have to describe them as if they were real places. So the advantages of existing locations is that there's existing reference material and neat details to draw from; the disadvantage is that the setting becomes lifeless without that reference material.
Michelle Brundage Weston: Creating your own locations gives you the freedom to put whatever you need wherever you need it. Unfortunately, you will have to create a lot of things. With action, location and such matters. With other genres, you might be able to get away with it.
David Herring: I have struggled with this issue in my own writing ad nauseam.
On one hand, using a real-life city adds more of a cultural and personal touch to your story. It also is instantly recognizable to the reader and better helps them connect to the setting.
On the other hand, creating a fictional city grants the author vast creative freedom to come up with there own cultural sandbox.
The best solution I've found is what I call "meeting myself in the middle." What that means is, from a variety of factors I came up with a real-world region (or state) of the country I wanted my city based in. Next, I picked out a small (or ghost) town and reimagined it as a fictional major metropolis.
As the godfather himself, Stan Lee once stated. The reason all the Marvel heroes are from New York is that he was born and raised in New York and he knows New York. He's just writing what he knows. While it sounds so simple and cliche, it really is the best thing a writer can do because it will instantly give your story credibility.
Bertram Gibbs: You can set up the moods within the location. A bustling cityscape versus a small town. The people who populate each has a certain way of thinking. Small towns would be more laid-back, while cities are more rushed. So, the mood/tempo of the cities/locations can and should be used in describing the characters and their motivations.
Bobby Nash: I can add or take away whatever I need for my fictional town. Need a rock quarry? No problem. Need a river? No problem. It helps. The downside is that I have to keep up with all of it because it's not a real place I can simply revisit. I have to keep track of what is there and what isn't. In Evil Ways, one of the things I mentioned was how the area was changing as new development was moving into the area. When we pick up with Evil Intent and the Sheriff Myers series, a few years have passed and we can see those changes. Sommersville is growing and changing, not always for the better.
Tobias Christopher: Advantage: Sky's the limit on creating your own world. I mean, imagine a world where there's a video store on every corner and zero Starbucks. Disadvantage: Depending on the realism level of the story, you probably couldn't have hidden mechas hidden throughout the town in weird locations.
Don Mancha: When you make your own location it's up to you to create everything. Which is excellent if you don't want to be held down by the restraints of reality.
The big problem though is that you literally have to create everything. That takes time, and an understanding of the impact of setting on the story, which takes hard work.
Edward Ainsworth: Creating your own locations are fabulous, but, sometimes when you're going for something like UF, then the locating being real allows you to create layers on top. Whereas something brand new, like say trying to build a Gotham, is much more fluid and it is easier for readers to get lost unless you build up a really vivid, well thought out, structured city. And while we're all good writers and stuff, city planning ain't something we're great at I'd imagine.
Sytse Algera: I prefer real locations, especially when the artist is great at the detailed stuff. A disadvantage is that the artist must be able to pull it off. I only did contemporary thrillers here in Europe so far. Our series is now known for the cities we use, and we use the fact in advertising.
Scott McCullar: I may be jumping ahead to your next question, but I like to think that a “make believe” city or imaginary location is a character in the story unto itself. It can be a far far away planet but somewhere close to home… an island where dinosaurs still live, a city where your crimefighter protects its citizens, or whatever it needs to be to serve the purpose of the imaginary story.
How much does your location, whether existing or created, become a character in its own right in your fiction?
Michelle Brundage Weston: It can be a character. Lord of the Rings is a good example. With action/pulp, however, the focus is more on the action. I do try to ramp up the "ooh shiny" with the more exotic type locations. (As in, the bayou outside of NOLA would be more of a character...)
Bertram Gibbs: I like using New York. To me, the city is a character all its own and the individuals who inhabit it are the city's subconscious.
Bobby Nash: Sommersville absolutely has a feel of its own that makes it just as important as any other character in the book. The town and county has its own unique feel, it's own rhythm that will hopefully make it feel different from other fictional locations. The same is true of existing locations. Los Angeles needs to feel like Los Angeles, Atlanta has to feel like Atlanta, that sort of thing.
Brian Augustyn: Many writers like to feature their cities as characters, Chandler's LA, Parker's Boston, Paretsky's Chicago, etc. al, and a real city works better, plays more intimately and believable. That works for me as well.
Hilaire Barch: For most of my stories, the setting is quite often simply where things happen, but I have read plenty of stories where the place is as much a part of the story as the characters. If you want it to be, you have to breathe as much life into it as any of your characters.
Scott McCullar: Yes, Gotham City is as much a character as is Batman.
For me, I have a few fictional locations in my THRILL SEEKER COMICS universe with the stories that I tell. While it is a globetrotting world these characters travel around, I do have a “base of operations” for my main characters that serves as home port. The most prominent center of my fictional stories take place in a thrilling location called St. François de Port and is located on the Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans where Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana all touch on the map. The real location of Yazoo City would be just to the east. My fictional city in the Deep South is where my pulp character Yellow Jacket: Man of Mystery™ lurks when not on the run or gallivanting around on a mission or case.
I really wanted to write a story about a character from the South. Hardly any comic book heroes were from there that I was reading in mainstream comics.
I developed a rich history for St. François de Port that ties into true history with the founding by the French in 1719 and later falling into the hands of the Spanish and Hernando de Soto exploring. There are bluffs and Native American tribes and a pyramid there that were lost. Later a Spanish Fort. As time went by, it was a major site of a Civil War battle. Riverboat pirates and the road to a Texarkana town called Deadman’s Gulch where I can tell Westerns. I could go on and on, but I do have a rich history of this city that I will explore in future stories.
One thing I like about my fictional city is that I can blend Memphis and New Orleans to a certain degree in my location. A rich history where both blues and jazz prosper. It is a riverboat city. A religious city. An ancient city. A modern metropolis now. To the north are the cotton fields and Delta. BBQ. Juke Joints. To the south are the swamps filled with alligators and voodoo spirits.
It can be whatever I need it to be.
Yeah, I love fictional cities.
Danielle Procter Piper: I won't call the locations in my stories characters, but let's use cooking terms to describe them. My main characters are the meat of my stories, so the location would be the cooking vessel., possibly even some of the flavoring because they do help define the layout of a story, and can influence the characters the same way we form assumptions about people from New York City in general versus people from Los Angeles in general. So, the pot, the heat source, maybe even some of the spices, but my stories are meat-driven with lesser characters being the veggies and sauce. Does that make sense? Sometimes the container the food is cooked in or the way it's cooked is integral to the finished dish, but it's the taste, the texture, and even the nutritional value that make a meal worth returning to.
Robert Freese: In my one novel, I made the movie theater, not necessarily the city it was in, a major character in the story. Readers told me it was upsetting when it burned down at the climax. I think because I created a kind of theater that existed years ago, readers had a connection to it, and it became a real place within the story.
Bill Craig: Key West and Tampa both are major characters in the Marlow mysteries and the Rebeka McCabe mysteries. They are not only the backdrop, but they provide a rich texture to the story, just as San Diego does in my Mitch Cooper series.
Richard Laswell: Much of my fiction is based on very specific locations, a house, a cabin, a spaceship, etc. I rarely write locations more than background unless it is needed.
Tuttle E. Tejas: How much does location become a character in it's own right? Boston is probably Spenser's closest friend in Robert B. Parker's novels. The same is true of Kerney's New Mexico in Michael McGarrity's novels. Cynosure is both lover and antagonist to John Gaunt in Grimjack. My own character only feels safe in his own city and I do my best to give Houston a voice equal to my protag--without writing a travelogue.
I didn't give RJS for Green Arrow until Mike Grell moved him from Star City (or wherever the hell he was) to Seattle.
Don Mancha: The bulk of my most recent story takes place in a basement, it's walls are gradually covered in newspaper clippings and research by the main character. The basement hasn't changed structurally but aesthetically it's taking on the traits of the person living in it. And that's all a good setting is, an expression of the people that live within it.
Tobias Christopher: Depends on the story. Omega Guardians, for example, the old Union Station in Downtown Indy was starting to become a character in itself until it was demolished towards the end of Season 2.
Aaron Smith: The extent to which the location becomes a character in its own right varies widely depending on the nature of the story. Sometimes it's just convenient to place the story there, while other times it feels as if the story couldn't be set anywhere else and still have the same soul.
Edward Ainsworth: London is, very, very much it's own character. Always has been and always will be. Be it as an entity of its own expression, or with an element of humanity embedded within it. Smaller Cities that I've used, like Cambridge, or Canterbury, have their own charm and vibe and that infects stories on multiple levels.
David Ellis: It's a matter of how the setting interacts with the characters. New York City is a character in a lot of superhero fiction because dense skyscrapers make for great backgrounds (Spider-Man, in particular, uses them for locomotion in a unique way that makes his life more difficult when he's away from them). All the details that make New York a character in real life can show up in a superhero story and enhance the setting. I've also created entirely made-up worlds for my own fiction or roleplaying games, and the way the characters interact with the setting and vice verse make for a symbiosis between the two.
Perry Constantine: It depends on the story, really. In some of my series, the books jump from location to location, so it's really only there for window dressing. But in other series where a firmly established city is used as the main setting, then it definitely becomes a character in its own right. Chicago and Osaka are both huge influences on the Luther Cross and Kyoko Nakamura series.