The older I grow, the more place becomes a character in my work. I’ve always connected strongly to certain places and felt revulsion for others. Cape Cod, New Orleans, Northumbria, and Scotland give me a strong sense of peace, belonging, love, and ferocious “rightness”.
And there are other places I can’t wait to leave.
However, writing about a real place can often cause problems. For instance, in New York City, real estate and neighborhoods change on a daily basis. What was once my favorite bar down the street on The Deuce when I lived in Times Square became a Dominio’s Pizza, which was then torn down to make way for a high rise. I walked past it last weekend, and now there’s a 7-Eleven installed in it. 7-Eleven in New York City?
When you create fiction and use real places, the places often change. Or, far too often, writers can’t be bothered to even look at a map and get streets right. (That tendency makes me nuts – a writer disrespects my city like that, I don’t buy the person’s work again). It’s one thing to make up bars and apartment houses and streets and even entire towns. It’s quite another to make mistakes in real geography out of carelessness.
When I went back to my mystery serial Tapestry, which is set in New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, I realized just how tough it is to be true to geography. Yes, I invent some stores and bars. I also mix them in with real ones. And I re-walked the streets of the Village again, to make sure I got my streets and my cross-streets correct. The restaurants may come and go, but, hopefully, St. Mark’s Place will remain for a few more centuries.
Thank goodness I still had the diaries from those years, when I lived in Times Square, but worked and spent most of my time in the Village. It was on the cusp of gentrification then, which is one of the peripherals dealt with in the story. But I had the names of restaurants and stores and all sorts of places which no longer exist, so I could add that touch of realism to the piece. People who lived there at the time and know the neighborhood well could enjoy the celebration of the landmarks.
And yes, I’ll have to add, in the acknowledgements, something about the way the place has changed, and will continue to change over the years.
It’s difficult to change the actual geography of a place like New York City without thoroughly angering many readers. But what about lesser-known places?
I’ve set several sets of stories in a place based on my hometown, which is outside of New York City, on Long Island Sound. However, I didn’t want to be trapped by its exact geography and limitations. For instance, in the stories featuring the characters who originally appear in “Dogs on Beach” (under the name Christy Miller), I wanted to use the town beach and park, but have it within walking distance of the main street of the town. In reality, it’s several miles, and you can’t nip to the newsstand I have in “History Lesson” for the Sunday paper unless you’re training for one of the charity walks.
So I made up an additional Westchester town, stretched the shoreline of Long Island Sound, and squeezed it in between the actual towns. Now I can refer to the actual towns, including my hometown, but still have the freedom of the fictional town so I can make up any sort of geography I want, without hurting anyone’s sensibilities. The geography will be created to serve the needs of the story, instead of having to conform the story to the geography, the way I had to do in Tapestry.
I did the same thing with the stories set on Cape Cod, dealing with environmentalism, that begin with “Impressions” (under the Ava Dunne name). The geography of the drive between New York over the Bourne Bridge to the Cape is correct – I’ve done it many times. However, I wanted a different town than Barnstable or Mashpee or Marstons Mills, but I wanted it to be in that general vicinity. So I created Miller’s Pond, stretching that area of the Cape, sticking in a few extra salt marshes, and using a name that’s been in the family, and a family name that’s been in Massachusetts for generations.
My intent is to be respectful to the region, but still serve the story first. These regions are characters in the stories. I don’t want to do a disservice to the real places, yet the needs of the stories go beyond actual geography.
I have pieces set in Edinburgh, in Paris, in London, in Ayrshire, in pre-Katrina New Orleans. You better believe I spend hours pouring over maps, and, when I’m actually in the regions, hours walking the streets, taking notes and photographs, getting my hands on any map I can.
I have a drawer full of maps from the 1960s and 1970s, when I traveled with my parents. Many of the maps are different now – new roads, new construction. Yet, when I set something in the 1960s or 1970s, I can pull out those maps and see how it was. When I write historical work, I hunt down maps or facsimile maps of the region in that time.
Geography is as important as plot or character. Balancing respect for actual geography with the needs of fictional geography is sometimes frustrating, always fascinating, and very necessary, in my work, anyway, for it to succeed.