Monday, July 7, 2014

Michael Connelly & Setting-Write What You Know

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Erica Vetsch lured me onto this broken road about three months ago.

There's an Amazon Movie
Reading the Harry Bosch series. So however long ago it was, I have just finished book #17 in a #17 book series and a new book is releasing in November.

First I’ll say what deeply impresses me about these books is the complexity and originality of the plot. They are basic police procedurals but they are really intricate and interwoven and just amazingly well done.

So, having said that, what I want to talk about today is how Connelly (and yes, I typo his name EVERY TIME I SPELL IT!!!) weaves the setting into his books.

It’s a rule of thumb of mine to always fictionalize my setting. In fact I believe I've said that long and loud right here on Seekerville. Why? Because GETTING IT RIGHT IS HARD AND I DON’T WANT TO GET IT WRONG.

Michael Connelly also wrote
The Lincoln Lawyer
Well, Connelly gets it right. His hero Harry Bosch is a homicide detective with the LAPD. And Connelly makes Los Angeles come alive in these books. I went to Wikipedia to double check but I was absolutely sure Connelly must be from LA. The highway numbers, the restaurants, the scenery, the landmarks…it’s all so personal, so in depth.

Here's an example of Connelly setting a scene:
The Chateau Marmont sat at the east end of the Sunset Strip, an iconic structure set against the Hollywood Hills....

The Chateau offered Old World charm and a lack of interest in your personal business.

Just past the Laurel Canyon Boulevard the hotel rose behind the profusion of billboards that lined Sunset.
The hotel was technically located on Marmont Lane, which split off from Sunset and wound around the hotel and up into the hills.

Chateau Marmont--the scene of the crime
Look at this. It's real. He didn't fictionalize this hotel.
He knows it. He's been there (or if he hasn't I can't tell).
I love this.
And it makes me trust him all the more then next time he sets a scene.
And I'm sure he does fictionalize some things, but he's won my trust and made it all so real.
There are just so many small details, the kind of thing you just can't get from a Google search. He just throws these things in, so casually and so SPECIFICALLY that you know he has to have seen it. I catch myself thinking as I read, Bosch really knows LA. And of course…how would I know…I don’t know LA. But there’s just something about the way Detective Bosch--when being told where the murder scene is, always listens to about five words and says, “I know where it is.”

And the way Connelly stays in the car with Bosch, makes the drive important, Bosch talking things over with a partner, or making phone calls or if he’s alone, reasoning through the case. ‘Grinding it down’ as Bosch thinks of it. But all while making casual references to the turn-offs and the highway numbers and restaurants they pass while driving.

The vibrancy of the setting of these books adds so much richness to them.

Connelly was a Los Angeles resident and he was also on the police beat as a journalist for years and his intimate knowledge of police lingo and all the interplay between cops that ring so true, but I’ve never heard of before, so how can I be sure if he's got it right, but it SEEMS right and maybe having such a solid fix on the setting makes you trust him in all the other little details. What it adds up to is Michael Connelly ‘writing what he knows’.

How do you all handle this? Does anyone … when it comes to setting … pick a place they know really well and use it? We don’t want to get it wrong, but what if we know our setting so well we are sure we can get it right.

Do you do this? Set your books in real places? If you do not, is it because of something I said? If so, maybe I was wrong. But then would I have to set all my books in small town Nebraska? I can see that would be limiting!!!

I know from setting the novella I wrote as backstory about Andersonville Prison that it really takes a lot of work to come close to getting it right through Google searches. And yet a research trip, wow, that’s not in the budget.

Let’s talk setting. How it can be a character in your book, how using a fake one gives you freedom, how using a real one can give you depth. Pros and cons.

All commenters get their name in the drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card, and if you’re around TOMORROW NIGHT, I’m at a Facebook party where we’re giving away an iPad Mini, so go here and join:

Then come to the party and talk with Robin Lee Hatcher, Debra Clopton, Margaret Brownley and me. We never get together that we don’t have a great time.


  1. For my Ozark series I used the setting I know best, but I fictionalized it so I wouldn't get it wrong, and so I cold take liberties if I wanted! I grew up in a little town called Licking. It was named for the nearby deer and buffalo licks. So I called it Deer Lick.

    Does that get me in the drawing? :)

    Coffee's set to brew.

  2. Yeah, readers can complain about so many things, I'm not about to give them something more to complain about--and books take so long to write--so I'm not about to put my stories in real places if I haven't been there. And I've only lived in two places long enough to really know them BUT even though I could talk about Branson MO roads, etc. The tourist town changes CONSTANTLY so if I identified one theater, so many of them have hopped theaters, I'd still have to search and make sure it's still where it was.....and then back in 1880s? Doesn't matter that I know Branson, I'd still have to research it and somebody will be all like The Baldknobbers wasn't there, and I'll be "yeah huh" but they won't believe me because in 1960 they knew where it was.....

    SOOOOO, I still pretend that I'm using a town, but fictionalize it. Perhaps I pick Branson, like Helen picked Licking, and I call it something else. That way I research it and say "The BaldToppers Theater is right near the blah blah blah" and I create a pretend depth, and also I don't have to make up absolutely everything from scratch.

    Now, my book's aren't "real historicals" in that I choose an actual war battle or historical figure or something that anchors me to a place though. The closest I get is using Carrie Nation, saying she came through town, and she really did come through the town I was using for my real town, but since she went through tons of towns at that time and I'm only mentioning her, I'm calling it good, but if she were the driving force of my book, then .....

    Nope, I just don't see me using a real town. Maybe if I didn't have teeny tiny children . . . . and ideas that required real towns. Contemporaries would be much easier, but really, I'd be like you, how many thrillers could I write in a teeny tiny nowhere town? --People who live here now are so bored with the town, they waste tons of gas to go to another state like every weekend because it's boring here. I'm too frugal and hermity to bother.

  3. I use fictional settings for a couple of reasons. I don't want readers calling me out on a mistake and it is is fun to create towns the way you'd like them to be. So nothing you said, Mary.

    I'd love to win the gift card. I need to add more Seekerville author books to the church library.

  4. Morning everyone :)

    I write contemporaries and (so far) have set my stories in real places. Tell you what, Google is great but when you don't live in America and have to write a story in an American setting you've got to have local help if you can't get there yourself.

    I've had my heroine running across highways, eating at diners that are known to be gang hangouts, catching the wrong public transport, sitting in arks only the homeless frequent, living in suburbs she just wouldn't live for her age and situation. All caught thanks to people who live in the city :)

  5. I love it when an author creates a fictional world that appears so real that I Google it to see if it exists and when I find it doesn't and sit back and say, "Wow!". I also love it when an author takes a town I know really well and brings memories back to me. Sarah Sundin, in her first book, A Distant Melody did exactly that. One of her main settings was Riverside, CA which is where i grew up. Like I said, she created my city of long ago.

    I myself, try to create my own world as I would hate to get it wrong.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  6. Well, my main project right now is a three-book series that begins on the Oregon Trail, so I kind of have to research it because I don't know where to get a covered wagon in this day and age. Or a driver. Most of that is part of our national heritage, so it's not hard to find on Google or elsewhere. But now I'm off the trail and into a town and their first winter in the Oregon Territory. I made up a town, er, a village, er, a hamlet because I wanted to do my own thing, but I'm basing it on accounts of real settlements at that time.
    My other series, City On a Hill, is different because it takes place in New York City. I had to do a lot of research and haul out the maps for this one. I used a lot of generic details from Boston, where I have lived -- anybody can shove you aside when you're crossing a street, and an urban crowd is an urban crowd -- but I had to research details of Upper Manhattan, Hell's Kitchen and The Bowery and layer them in. I did run it by a former crit partner who was raised in New York and she didn't see any red flags. But it is a challenge. I enjoy the research end of things. At some point I'll probably use my own background -- small-town New Hampshire and a few years in Boston -- but since I do historicals I have to research stuff anyway, so in for a penny, in for a pound.

  7. I'm reading Abandoned Memories right now, an historical set in Brazil that mentions Grandby Street in Norfolk. It's 30 minutes from my house so it's fun when I find references to my area in a book. It's probably easier with historicals I imagine, but I've also read contemporaries like Dee Henderson who mentions Langely in some of her books also 30 minutes from my house.

    I've also read books set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, close enough that I visit often and have spotted errors by authors writing about the area. From a readers perspective, I enjoy the local references to places I know but even if the authors sometimes get it wrong, when the writing is good, it's not a deterrent or big deal to me. Local references about real places gives the reader a sense of familiarilty with the place and the author and I think that's a good thing.

  8. Well, of course the Thoenes in their Zion Covenant and other books in the World War II/establishing Israel series. I felt like I was in the Old City and in Vienna, Paris or wherever the characters ended up. But there were two of them. I understand he did the research and she did the writing. That is no excuse for us. Hmm, my husband likes history, I might put him on the payroll after we retire. When I GET a payroll.

    Yeah, I too am staying off the "real" historical figures for now. I have a famous priest giving advice to a character who seeks sanctuary in my WIP in the City On a Hill series, but that's still very seminal and I guess I have time to flesh him out. Otherwise, I've stayed away from it. My characters do fine on their own. I don't want to stick a legendary character in a story just for the sake of having him/her there.
    I am also frugal and hermity. You have little kids, I have a full-time job, so the in-person stuff will have to wait.
    BRANSON. Did you know Andy Williams?

  10. Obviously the Oregon Trail is a "character" in any book about said Trail because it tests their mettle in every possible way. It is still one of the seminal events of our time.
    New York is different. I suppose I could re-set the New York book in another large city, such as Boston which I do know. But I love the "hugeness" of New York and the distinct character of its slums -- the Bowery is different from Hell's Kitchen etc. My heroine works in a settlement house, so it kind of has to be a city.
    Sometimes it's hard to extricate your hero/heroine from a particular time and place. I could rework these, I guess, if an editor asked me to. Basic human nature and the heart's desire for God remain the same.

  11. Thank you Mary, that was interesting. I'm off for a while, will check in later.
    Kathy Bailey

  12. I wrote my books using a setting I was familiar with, Newport, Rhode Island, but I didn't know what it was like more than a century ago. Fortunately, I have lots of research material and stories my mother told me from her childhood and her mother's childhood. That helped me alot. I kind of felt I knew a little bit about what life was like way back then.

    Still, it has to be easier to make up a setting. I'm going to try it.

  13. I use a fictional town - but in a setting I'm familiar with - the Midwest :)

  14. Hi Mary, So when do you have time to read a whole series??? I'm impressed with that fact alone. lol

    I use settings I know all the time because they are important part of my plot. I had a house at Lake Tahoe and because of improvements we had to make, I know very well the environmental issues involved with building there so thought it a great plot for a story which became Love's Promises.

    The setting for Love's Refuge was set on a real island, but I renamed it for the same reasons many of you did. I wanted freedom to tweek some things that helped the plot.

  15. Lots to think about, Mary. My first two books were set in a real town a hundred years earlier. I visited Noblesville, the museum and cemeteries. To get it right took a lot of research. But, then I wasn't published so all I had was time. :-) Years later this manuscript became my debut Courting Miss Adelaide. I soon realized as a published author that I didn't have time to get every detail right. So the rest of my books are set in fictional towns. Sometimes I pick a town and fictonalize it as Helen and Melissa do.

    I remember reading LaVyrle Spencer's contemporary set in Door County, WI. We vacationed there and I took the book along and found all the little towns she mentioned--Fish Creek, Egg Harbor and the lighthouse. Fun!


  16. Helen I so this too. I pick a fictionalized town and often it's right down the road from a real town.
    So I can make passing references to Colorado City (what Colorado Springs was called at first) and Amarillo and Fort Worth, but the book isn't set there, my book is in some little town called 'Broken Wheel' or 'Rawhide' that's a long days ride from there.

  17. Somehow Connelly made me feel like I should know more, research more.
    On the Other Hand, he has his character in the SAME setting book after book.
    He rarely leaves LA so that helps.

  18. But he did have one section of one book in Hong Kong and that had that same realism to it. And he went to Las Vegas in a few books.
    The last book he went to San Quentin which is in San Francisco. I think maybe you learn to trust him through the LA details and then you're just along for the ride, trusting him with all sorts of stuff, whether setting or characterization or lingo.

  19. Melissa, you know that is so so so true. And LA must change constantly too.
    In fact in the course of these books he's had Harry Bosch work at different police stations, and a new police station was built and Harry moved over to it.
    So in that sense what was true in earlier books is now NOT true and yet he has it so well anchored that you know it was true while the book was written and...seventeen books in the earlier books almost take on a historical feel.
    No cell phones, typing up police reports, Harry has switched, grudgingly to a computer. He uses technology with few real skills and talks about his partner doing online searches so much faster than he can.

  20. You understand this is all background, right?
    He sets these scenes with precision sketches, woven into the story.
    He can go on about a place for a paragraph or two at times, but the story is always advancing, the setting is secondary at the same time it's so solid, so seemingly real, that it makes the story seem more real.

  21. Hi Terri, you know that's true. It's about getting it right, but it's also about the freedom to have your town be exactly like you need it to be.
    In Los Angeles, I'm sure Connelly has everything he could possibly want but I would have to work so hard to set a book there, do so much research, even then I'd be in trouble.
    I wonder if HISTORICAL Los Angeles would work better?

  22. Kara, good for you for doing the work.
    It makes me smile to think of how true that is, your heroine in a park that's full of homeless people.


    How would you know that? Is that something a Google search would ever reveal? It gets to HARD!
    Good for you for doing that hard work.

  23. Cindy W, see that's exactly how I feel. I hate getting it wrong and I'm not a bit confident I can get it right, so I fictionalize.
    It makes me admire Connelly's confidence all the more.

  24. Kaybee, well those are probably as diverse of settings as anyone has ever used. :D
    The Oregon Trail and modern day New York City.

    Good for you for trying different things.

  25. Good morning, Mary.

    I'm currently writing contemporary suspense and I love the way setting can play into the story. One of my stories is set in Maine. Last summer, as I was sitting on the beach there, I noticed something about the tide that triggered a unique plot element that required the heroine to totally trust the hero - something she was not good at doing.

    I live in NY and am to fond of setting stories here, but for a recent book, I did have one scene when they were in NYC. There was definitely more of a comfort zone in writing that scene, mainly because I instinctively knew what details I could throw in.

    Haven't read Harry yet, but every time I notice how much shelf space Connelly takes up, I think I should.

  26. Hi Tracey, see someone setting a book somewhere YOU KNOW and getting it wrong.

    I think that's intimidating to an author.

    And you're right, readers will forgive a lot if the story is good.

    I catch myself being tempted occasionally while reading the series, to do Google searches on buildings and restaurants just to see if they're real.
    Or he makes them so vivid I HOPE they're real and I want to know more.

  27. KayBee,'re frugal and hermity.

    I love this. That describes me about exactly. Research trips, wow, that's never gonna happen.

    If course I do go to museums...not in distant places unless I tend to be there anyway. So for a historical author a museum is a research trip. But that's a different (and still important) part of scene setting.

  28. Hi Sherri, you know that's true. the area and era you're in is true even if the little town is fictional. So I have the Peco River floating through a story or Pike's Peak or Palo Duro Canyon...nearby.

  29. I fictionalize most of my settings. Not because of anything I've read here on Seekerville, but because it's easier and I have more freedom. That said, two of my historical novels are set in the town I live in. I did lots of research to make sure I was getting it right, but it was pretty easy as most of the buildings from the 1800s are still standing.

    I wish I could come to the party, but we're going to Jackpot Roping at our cowboy church. For anyone who doesn't know, that's a team roping practice with money at the end. So fun to watch.

  30. I did have to fictionalize Carlsbad Cavern...but the more I researched the more I realized just how perfectly well known the area is and there was just no way I could see to do what I wanted to do.
    I tried to set a book in Yellowstone once, Wrangler in Petticoats, and ended up abandoning it when I read the history of the place. What I wanted to do, WHEN I wanted to do it, well, it turned out that this place where I needed a vast, empty wilderness....had a hotel on it...yes even way back then.
    Like Carlsbad, the history of Yellowstone is just painstakingly well known.

  31. Mary Curry, you noticed something about the TIDE?

    Why does that almost thrill me?

    I just love a detail like that suddenly changing everything or giving you a plot twist.

    I am such a research and history freak. I love it and it's a real time sink, too. You have to be careful or suddenly you're just like...GONE for four hours (at least that happens to me) and you've done NO WRITING!

  32. Crystal, a roping contest at cowboy church?

    Wow, that is about the best excuse for missing a party I've ever heard.

    Have a great time.

    I wish I could come.

  33. Connelly, Connealy ...I'm thinking you must share an ancestor. I don't know about the first as I've never read those books, but Mary? YES. SHE ROCKS!!! And I know exactly where I'm spending that $25.00 gift card. Stuck Together is on the top of my list

  34. Mary, we do this every Tuesday. Unless it rains us out or the steer are sick. I wish you could come too. We could sit, watch cowboys, and talk writing and books!

  35. Being fond of the small-town setting, I tend to use the last two I lived in as settings for my books. I'll often "tweak" names of establishments. In that area, I guess you can say that I stick with what I know.
    Put me in the drawing. You can never have too many books, right?

  36. You've got me chomping at the bit to start another 17 book series.

    I do the same thing that Helen and Melissa do. It's just safer and allows for artistic freedom.

    Paradise, Colorado is based on Del Norte Colorado.

  37. So to read this post and the comments and see how you writers choose your settings!! Just keep up the great writing 'cause I love to read!
    Count me in for the A. card, please!

  38. I've often wondered why authors go everywhere for their settings except where they live. Now you tell me--it's boring. Two of my stories are located in Macon, Ga. I grew up in a little town 60 miles away, but it was our go-to big city. I set my Reconstruction book there because it was so handy for research and nothing was damaged during the civil war. The old antebellum houses are still standing. I set my Christmas novella there because I wanted to describe the city decorated for Christmas when I was a child, in 1963.

    I agree with everyone else, making things up is easier. You feel like you have to double check every little thing if the place is real.

  39. I usually create a fictional town and use real towns to anchor the general area for the reader.

    Claiming Mariah is in Wisdom, Wyoming Territory. There is no Wisdom, Wyoming (as far as I know), but Laramie is within a days ride of there.

    Sipsey Creek meanders Southwestward through Mississippi. There is no town called Sispsey, MS, but The Evergreen Bride and The Lumberjack's Bride are set in a small community called Sipsey. Sipsey could be at any crossing along the miles of Sipsey Creek.

    And I like it that way. :)

  40. I totally agree that using a fake setting gives you freedom but using a real one gives you depth. And I LOVE it when a setting in a book is so real,it comes to life as much as any character.

  41. Getting it wrong is why I typically prefer to create fictional settings for my stories. But after vacationing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, since the mid-'80s and learning so much of the history of the area, I couldn't resist setting my Till We Meet Again series there. I got a lot of help from the historical society--maps, photographs, etc.

    And, somehow, I opted for real places in Texas Big Bend Country for the contemporary series I'm now working on for Heartsong Presents. I've been corresponding with someone who's actually been there, though, and she's provided photos, descriptions, and other elusive details I never would have known about otherwise.

  42. I've seen him on Castle!! I definitely would love to read his books, more police procedurals in general, but I'm with Sandra. How do you find the time to read a 17-book series AND remember all the details? Wow! Perhaps that gift card would be a good opportunity to buy some of those books.... :-)

  43. Mary, this is a tough call, I think. I wrote my first book in the real town of Gatlinburg, TN, because we often vacationed there. While writing it, I took a notebook around town and wrote down little details to make sure I remembered them right.

    After that, I've been creating towns. So that can be fun, too. :)

  44. I love reading books set in places I've visited, but I also like books with fictional settings since the author can get creative with it. I'm so excited for the facebook party- I'll see you there! :)

  45. Hi Mary,

    I'm impressed with so much reading! I usually set my stories in fictional places as well... 'cause it's more fun!

    Right now my historicals are set in New York (Long Island and Manhattan) so I'm doing a LOT of research. I know what you mean about hours going by! Been there!!

    I even bought a book of historic NY maps so I could get the streets right. Whew! But it is fun.

    I'd love to win a gift card! So many books to buy!

    sbmason at sympatico dot ca

  46. Hi Mary!

    I love it when authors know their settings so well that you feel like you've been there. It's double-love when I have been to a real place and can walk the streets with the author.

    For my first several books, I've used real settings. In my first two Amish historicals (one came out in May 2013, the next one comes out in August!), I used the area my Dad grew up in. And my family has lived in that area since the mid-1800's.

    What really made it work, though, is that my stories take place in the 1930's. Not only is my Dad an eyewitness to life in that place and at that time, I remember those places from when I was a little kid. And things hadn't changed much between the '30's and the '60's.

    I knew I had it right when a reader sent me a very nice letter about how she remembers a building I mentioned that has been gone since the '70's, and she could see it clearly from my description.

    But I don't always start out knowing a setting so well. For the story I just finished, that takes place in 1877 Deadwood, I had to haunt the streets of the town. I'm glad they've preserved a lot of the historical parts of the area, but oh, my poor husband! I tend to see my story in my mind when I'm walking around the setting, and the poor guy has to put up with "that's where Nate and Harris had their fight" or "there's where Sarah's school was, right down that alley."

    And yes, right in the middle of tourist season.

    People stare.

    One of my favorite authors to use a real town, though, is Craig Johnson. He fictionalized the name, and made it smaller, but his setting is Buffalo, Wyoming (aka, Durant). I'm spending next weekend there, and I'm looking forward to eating breakfast at Walt Longmire's favorite cafe, The Busy Bee. And yes, I'm going to order "the usual" :)

  47. Mary, I love books where I get lost in setting or travel to someplace new...but those could be real or imagined I love books where setting is a character. The Harry Bosch series sounds perfect for my hubby. I was surprised he didn't know about those books.

    For my writing, I've done both real and imaginary settings, but find the real places are hard because I agonize over every detail....and then wonder if it really makes any difference to a reader. With historical, I stare and old photos and try to jump into the photo setting to feel what it was like to live there. Historical sites are great for this. How do all you historical writers get into setting? Does it get easier as you immerse yourselves into the book and time period?

    For my current WIP, I'm using a mix of places I've lived and visited to create my imaginary world. I like the freedom this allows because I'm not always searching the internet for the facts. If I say it is, it is! I'm too much of a perfectionist! But I still have historical stories floating in my head, so I do want to learn how best to write those.

    I'm signed up for your party. The video link in the WE was fun! What a laugh I the end! I missed not seeing you in the video, Mary. :( Thanks to Seekerville and Margaret Brownley, Four Weddings and a Kiss is at the top of my TBR pile! You all are blessings!

    Please enter me in the Amazon card giveaway....there are so many books on my list. Which is a good thing!

  48. Hi Mary,
    Tracey again, I have great respect for writers who strive to get the background facts right. However, most readers are not looking for perfection in every detail of the books they read, so I hope everyone concerned about this will cut themselves some slack. The story itself is really the most important thing.

    I'm curious, do you read a book, or series, straight through marathon style, or read and write at the same time?

  49. know...I love this, that you have a childhood memory of Christmas lights that's so vivid you want to catch it in a book.

    I think that's where great, fun writing comes from when an author is passionate about something or has a loving memory of something.

  50. Hi Mary:

    I perfer your original advice about using fictional locations.

    There is no logical reason why a fictional location could not have as much specificity with greater verisimilitude than a real location could have. The choice is all about the degree of magnification the author wants to place on details.

    Creating a high level of details for a fictional location places a great burden on the author to make this multitude of minutia consistent in all future and already written pages. Besides a big reason not to use real locations is the potential problem of being sued.

    All in all, it really gets down to the focus a specific genre requires. In a police procedural much of the good feelings derived from reading the story come from the belief that this is the way police work is really done. The reader enjoys riding along with the cops.

    In a romance the focus is on the ‘falling in love’ process. This process is often more concerned with the landscape of the interior than it is with the landscape around city hall. You don’t need a flashlight to explore the stars.

    In effect, while showing me how many steps there are to the top of the Statue of Liberty may make me believe that a body really was found at the top, it will not make me believe that the detective is really falling in love with the dispatcher.

    Setting can do far more than set a GPS point; it can also mirror the internal states of the hero and heroine. When the hero sees the flowers in front of his church, is he seeing the flowers at his mother’s funeral or the blossoms he longs to see at his and the heroine’s wedding? Often in romance we see what is behind our eyes. Setting can be the mirror that allows us to do that.

    Make it fictional but make it real. : )


    P.S. Now I’m confused. I thought we were supposed to be reading all the Jack Reacher books but today I find out it’s actually the Harry Bosch series! Hamish Macbeth isn’t going to like this.

  51. My favorite author, Barry Eisler, visits the cities he writes about in order to add realism. The descriptions he makes are amazing.

    In my one novella, I fictionalized a setting but drew from where I live. However, I prefer to keep it as real as I can and draw on historical writings. In my one Americana WIP, I chose Portland, a place where I lived for 11 years.

    In my Japan WIPs, I also use real cities. One of my most treasured finds is a late 16th century map of Kyoto. It allowed me a lot of planning. I've also walked those streets (granted, modern day), so I have some idea of how far it is from point A to point B.

    In my Biblical fiction WIP, I chose a city that existed at the time of my novel, but one whose location is unknown today.

  52. One thing I've found helpful for my fictional towns is to actually draw a map. That way I don't forget where everything is!

  53. Melissa, I do what you mentioned. Write about a real town I'm picturing but call it something else. I had a readers group actually recognize their town even though I'd renamed it. :)

  54. Fun post, Mare!!

    Well, in my Boston books, I pretty much just gave the city a slight nod, describing the setting initially, but from that point on, mostly focusing on the family setting and environment unless I had an outdoor scene like Revere Beach on Boston's waterfront. THEN I did heavy research to get the history right.

    However ... in my San Francisco series, that all changed when I found out my editor grew up there.


    So I really put some muscle into the research, and I cannot believe HOW many of my reviews comment on this, saying they felt like they were walking the streets of San Fran 1902-1904. It gave me a thrill that has convinced me just how vital setting really is.

    One of the most fun and successful things I think an author can do with setting is dig up realllllly fun and interest and bizarre facts that bring a lot of charm to the story.

    Like in book one of the Heart of San Fran series, Love at Any Cost, I built a whole scene around the famous Sutro Baths, which was almost a manmade wonder at that time with seven seawater and freshwater pools beneath a four-story glazed roof of 100,000 panes of stained glass. The pools boasted toboggan slides, swings, flying rings and trampolines, all with the crash of the surf right outside. Swimmers had to wear standard black wool swimming suits that Sutro Baths provided, and they had enough suits to accommodate 10,000 swimmers at one time!!

    Anyway, when you toss in fascinating landmarks and then fun tidbits like the fact that Mark Twain met a San Francisco fireman named Tom Sawyer in the Montgomery Block sauna and used his name for his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, you add lots of fun and color for the reader AND for yourself. :)


  55. First....


    I'm beyond impressed.

    Possibly ILL....

    But geez, Louise, I might be just jealous that anyone gets that time to read, so I'm just going to stand in awe because there's precious little reading time around here with the leastun's...

    And the other side of that is I'm going to drive myself crazy once I retire because I thrive on madness.

    (twitches lips, thinking... thinking....)

    I must ponder this while Abby (age 10) and I make homemade bread...

  56. My current WIP is set in a fictional town 45 minutes outside of Tulsa. So my little town isn't "real", but my characters drive to a real city. Oklahoma has a lot of towns with Native American names. I found a name I liked then checked to make sure there wasn't a town with that name.

  57. I like mixed use stories, but when I use a big city, I use the real deal. New York City, Princeton, Philadelphia (two future novellas and an unpubbed suspense set in Philly)...

    And I use the streets and the statues/monuments, etc. But I agree, when you do this, you've got to have a decent knowledge of the location. I was real comfortable with Philly and NYC because I've got kids who've lived there for years and I've been there so often... So as the kids spread their wings, I get more research possibilities!!!


  58. Kara Isaac this is interesting... because out of country is a big difference, right?????

    "But then he was an "abo" and he was painting his own place"... Joe (A Town Like Alice)explaining how important it is to know your own place...

  59. I love setting my stories on the shores of North Carolina. The coast has such a strong personality, and I feel closer to God when I go to the beach.

    Write what you know? That's be Kentucky. Maybe because I've lived most of my life in some part of KY, I don't appreciate it as much as I should.

    Great post today. Thanks for sharing!

  60. Now I love to create my small towns as fictional places in real settings, and that's the best of both worlds....

    I can make all kinds of things up in a realistic setting and then "set" it outside a real city, etc...

    Walt, I think Barry likes vacations.... I heard from a DEAR FRIEND this past week that Nora rarely goes anywhere for research... Now if that's true, then she and Barry need to talk, LOL!!! :)

    Some aspects of research are elementary, but getting the flavor right and seeing it through the "mind's eye???"

    That's the art behind the setting's emotion.

  61. Hey y'all!
    I use fictional towns, but name real ones that are nearby such as Memphis. I would be bored using my own town. And like y'all said, no reason to give people more chances to critique, right? :)

  62. I love finding books that grab my attention and refuse to let go. AND if the book is part of a series (oh my goodness...17!), all the better.

    I fictionalize my settings, although they're based on real places. I simply want to improve the towns without going through building review, LOL! I feel more at ease with fictional towns, that way when I get something wrong, the townspeople can't come and get me.

    Besides, how many actual settings can you think of that are simple mountain towns in the first couple of books and then the next one comes out and you discover there is a ski area right outside of town!!

    I love being master of my own universe : )

    IF I had time to read, I'd pick up Connelly's book...

  63. Terri, I've done the same thing--set my stories in a fictional town that's near a real city where the characters go sometimes. So you get a touch of realism but can also design your fictional town any way you want to.

    I did this in my novel Pearl of Great Price, which is set in fictional Caddo Pines, Arkansas, but the characters also spend time in Little Rock and Hot Springs.

  64. Good point about checking a list of town names in the state where your story is set. I Google the most comprehensive list I can find to make sure I haven't overlooked some teensy, obscure little town in that state.

  65. Oh, Ruthy, I just LOVE homemade bread! I'm on my way!

  66. It's been a busy day in my life, but I'm glad I got to stop by and read this. I've heard of making your setting a character, but I'm still figuring out how to do it.

    I grew up in Denver and I have used that as my setting for my books. I guess I've used the city as more of a place marker. With the book I'm working on now, I want to highlight more of my home city. It's going to be fun to set some scenes in certain places and introduce them to readers (hopefully). :) But I've also created fictitious aspects in the real setting.

    Now that I think about it though, I'm thinking I'll need to double check things to make sure it's all accurate. :)

    If I ever write a book set in a smaller town, I definitely see the value of fictionalizing it. You've given me a lot of food for thought today. As have all the comments. :)

    Thanks, Mary!

  67. Mary, thank you for the post.

    I've had fun reading the comments. I don't know where I once heard this, but I've heard that some writers decide whether to fictionalize a town or not based on the population of a town? If a town is big enough, some decide to use the real name with real details. For smaller towns, the opposite applies with more writers creating a fictional town. Of course, this isn't written in stone, and I also can't credit a source.

    For my first book, I used the city of Atlanta, but for my next couple of books I created a fictional town, amalgamated from several towns.

    Great post and great comments.

  68. Jennifer, I wish I lived someone just a little bit interesting so I could do this. :)

  69. Meghan if you do read them, read them in ORDER.
    It took me three books to get hooked. Those first two books were really solid, intriguing police procedurals with really well done, complex plots HOWEVER I wasn't in love with Harry Bosch until book #3. Not sure now what it was but just the way his character unfolded in those first three books really deepened Bosch's character and made him really a guy to cheer for.



  71. Susan, I set my novella (currently free on my blog) about the pre=quell to Trouble in Texas in Andersonville Prison and as I waded deeper and deeper into research of the place I started finding out so many details, exact words in quotation marks, spoken by the commandant of the prison, things like that. And as I learned all this it became more and more important to get it right. The timeline was just too well known.
    It made me remember why I fictionalize my towns and settings.

  72.'re going to where LONGMIRE LIVES??? (only fictional of course)
    Do they shoot any of the TV show there on location?
    Love Longmire.

  73. Sherida, that is exactly what happened to me with Andersonville.
    I realized the more I read, the more I didn't know and the more people who studied it DID know.

    It was daunting because I didn't want to play fast and loose with history. Very daunting.

  74. Tracey--I absolutely keep writing. 1000 words a day five days a week. That is inviolable.

    (ten dollar word alert)

  75. FYI for all those who caught it in Vince's comment:

    Hamish Macbeth is a fictional police officer who serves as his town's 'bobby' in a series of mystery novels created by M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney). The novels are published in the UK by Constable & Robinson. In an interview, the author recalls,

  76. And Vince you know that's so true. The cop genre vs the romance genre....a different emphasis on setting.

    Great observation.

  77. From Walt's post (and I am taking note of these authors and series)

    Barry Eisler is the author of two thriller series, the first featuring anti-hero John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American former soldier turned freelance assassin, and a second featuring black ops soldier Ben Treven.

  78. Missy I drew a map for the novella collection I did with Karen Witemeyer, Regina Jennings and Carol Cox so we all knew the layout of the town, because all four books started in this fictional town of Dry Gulch, Texas. The other three books...they left town but in mine they stayed so we needed just a few general facts.

  79. Julie I love that you did that, found those details. I thought you did a great job with those real places.
    I never noticed 'the nod' to Boston but I know what you mean about just like....keeping your characters in their own little world and not using the big city too much.

  80. In TEN PLAGUES the thriller I wrote as Mary Nealy I set it in modern day Chicago.
    Heaven knows what havoc I played with that.

  81. See Ruthy, I think if I made homemade bread, I might not have time to read. So honestly you're busy being productive, I'm busy thumbing pages.

  82. Terri, I like the way using a fictionalized town but having a real town nearby and maybe even visiting there, anchors a story. You really know where you are.

  83. Ruthy, like Red Kettle Christmas? I loved that story! And New York was so real, but then you know at least enough about New York to pull that off.

  84. Jackie, I think you may be right about not appreciating the place we are.

    I set one three book cozy mystery series in Nebraska, fictionalized towns but based on small towns I know really well.

    It was fun. But Nebraska can have cowboys? Why don't I ever do that?

  85. Courtney, I think that's been my reasoning, that if I can't get it right I don't want to do it, so I fictionalize a town so it has everything I need and not much I don't.

    Make-believe is handy. :)

  86. Hi Jeanne T, I have set my books in real PLACES, like The Grand Canyon and the Palo Duro Canyon and I even have one scene in Yellowstone in Sharpshooter in Petticoats.
    But not towns. I guess I trust rock formations not to change and leave me with my story all wrong.

  87. Tanya this made a memory jump out at me.

    We used to read the Trixie Belden Books, all my girls read them growing up as did I.

    And we used to joke about the small town they lived near.

    Because it wasn't like any small town I knew did we not understand what the author meant by small town? Or is our idea, in a town of 600, just wildly different than some else's who might consider a town of 50,000 to be small.

    They had high rise builds and bad neighborhoods.

    And we look at our small town and just roll our eyes.

  88. I have CRIME BEAT, by Connelly, about--as the cover says--"A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers." He covered the detectives, knew them, understood them. Perfect research for writing mainstream suspense.

    We should all be so lucky! :)

  89. Mary, thanks for replying to my comment. I just had to chime in that I love Trixie Belden and Peekskill and Sleepyside-on-Hudson. I kept all my books. The towns and the different homes (a mansion, a farm) helped create a wonderful setting.

  90. Very interesting, Mary. I also enjoyed the comments from other writers about where they set their books. This is something I have wondered about. I never know if I should use real places. In the novel I am writing, I have considered whether or not to use real towns. I am making up a name of the town and the county, but wondered if it was OK to use real life bigger cities. Does that upset readers to make up geography? How do publishers feel about it?

  91. TANYA!!! Another fan of the Girl Detective. And Honey Wheeler and Mart ... those books were fun.

  92. I think details are important. As a reader or a viewer (TV) shows about medicine, cattle ranching or horses with errors seem to slap me against the head--like Gibbs on NCIS.

    On my latest WIP, I worried that I'd overwhelmed my reader with the specifics of showing Arabian horses. Since I did that for many years, I knew the topic. However, I still had to perform research to ascertain current changes. For me, it's hard to determine the fine line between detail and BORING overload! When is enough, enough?

  93. Sandy, I guess as it relates to Connelly, Los Angeles is just so integral to this story. It's LAPD there's just no way to recreate that huge of a city without going for a real one, does that make sense?
    Fictionalizing a good sized city would be okay. A police force with even....dozens of cops and some bureaucrats and political wrangling...
    But maybe it's hopeless to try and fictionalize something bigger.

    I mean shows...TV shows are often set in real places, so they take on this challenge of being faithful to a place...Castle NYPD, CSI Miami, like that.

  94. Becke as always in writing it's all about balance. You can't bog down the reader with details but you can weave them in, add them while advancing the plot.
    Hold them back during fast paced action scenes they be more generous with them during the breathers between the action scenes but whatever you do you MUST ADVANCE THE STORY. Don't grind it to a halt while you micro-explain the details.
    I can remember reading for hours on some historical topic to maybe get ONE SENTENCE out of it that I use.
    But a depth of knowledge I think....can be seen by the reader.

    I heard someone....who though...I want to say J.K. Rowling, say, she always wanted the reader to believe she know MORE about her characters than they did.

  95. I loved Trixie Belden. LOVED HER. We almost named our first daughter Trixie, well, not almost, but it was a contender until someone told me "Trixie's a DOG'S NAME..."

    But I still like the name!!!

    The bread is done. I brought some. Mary can fill your brains, and I'm the Martha-type, I'm puttin' food on the table for youse...

    The other side of this that several of you mentioned/noted/realized is that the setting is really like a WITNESS to a suspense or thriller... it's a stage setter. In a romance, you want the stage, but it's usually more subtle and that's a big difference.

    Which you all already said, so WHY AM I TALKING????

  96. Mary, interesting post! I love learning what you writers deal with! I can't wait for the Facebook party tomorrow! I also can't wait to read your new novella! I know it's going to be great!

  97. I guess to me Trixie is a hooker's name, Ruthy.

    But still, Trixie Belden made it work for her.

  98. Valri, see you tomorrow night. Those facebook parties are always really fun and really exhausting.

  99. Hmmm, I was a bit non-descript with town location with my only completed ms. Perhaps I need to revisit that.

    I think I did prefer using a real location and renaming it so I can fiddle with details, but this post has me re-thinking things to help enhance my future work.

    Please put me in the draw. I hope to visit tomorrow's FB party, but I'll be disguised as my husband's name since we share an account and the profile is his... i hope he won't mind - his friends might notice *heh*.

  100. Hi Mary - I really enjoyed the post. As a reader, I'm happy with fictional towns but I do get the feeling you're talking about when I read Donna Leon's books based in Venice. Please enter me in the drawing for the Amazon card.

  101. DebH, You (whatever the identity) are welcome. :)

  102. Loves to Read, Venice? Wow, I want to read that.

    That sounds so interesting, I'd love to 'float down the canals' with an author.

    I'm going to look Donna Leon up.

  103. Settings can really draw you into the story I feel.

    Fabulous post thank you.

  104. I think the made up settings can be easier sometimes because I don't have to worry about actual facts that are missing from a real town.

  105. With the sharp readers if a writer does not know a setting intimately it is probably a good idea to fictionalize it.

    Please enter me in your generous draw.

  106. And, now you have got me interested in his books!

  107. I tend to fictionalize my settings, but it is based on a real town that I have visited. :)

  108. Wonderful! You do make it real! You do make it live!
    God bless you
    Chris Granville

  109. Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Mary! Setting is very important and I found all the discussion about it very interesting.

    I’ve never considered myself very good at settings. Even just imagining how a character’s voice sounds or what they look like has been a struggle for me, and settings is another thing I just can’t get down-pat very easily. My first novel was set in 66 AD Jerusalem (partially) and imagining the landscape and what the city looked like back then has been quite the struggle (especially since I’ve never been there and there aren’t a lot of paintings showing scenery from that time period!). Mostly, I’ve shied away from trying to draw a picture of what the place was and concentrate on the story more. After reading the above comments, though, I’ve started to wonder if I shouldn’t do more research and try to correct some of those things!

    For myself, I love it when there are mentions in a story to real places—especially if they’re close home. And I admire the writer who can accurately portray those places—even if a detail or two is wrong. I have found that writing fictionalized places makes the job easier, but then (especially if you’re writing a historical book) it does make the story as a whole not quite so real because it doesn’t mention the historically accurate places.

    Thanks again for this post—and, if it isn’t too late, I’d like to be entered in the drawing.