My friend and publishing sister Elizabeth Corrigan has a new book out, RAISING CHAOS Book 2 of the Earthbound Angels Series. Elizabeth has written a cool guest post for my blog about settings because she and I are quite different in that aspect of our writing. Please check out her books at the links below and enjoy her interesting guest post about fictional versus real places in books.
One thing I admire about Melissa’s work is that she writes about a place that’s real. As her characters walk down the street, I can tell they’re drawing on Melissa’s vast experience and knowledge of Nantucket. She has a confidence in her settings—and a local interest readership!—that I envy.
I, on the other hand, don’t know any place on this Earth well enough to write about it in that kind of detail. Maybe my home town, once upon a time, but I graduated high school fifteen years ago. My solid picture has faded with both time and the fact that every time I visit, they’ve added a Sheetz or a Waffle House.
So what do I have instead? Do I write about completely made up places? Well, I’m a fantasy writer, so sometimes, yes, I do. Much of my first novel, Oracle of Philadelphia, takes place in Hell. Depending on your religious beliefs, you may or may not consider that a real place, but I erred on the side of completely making things up. Even on Earth, I can come up with fantasy-based places. In Raising Chaos, Bedlam visits a fictional town called the Haven, where humans serve angels and chronicle their history. The Haven plays an important narrative role in the story, and I was able to write a whole back story that explained its origins.
I also have fictional places that function as real places. The diner that figures prominently in Oracle is more an amalgam of all greasy spoons than a real place, and Coventry, the town that Carrie visits in Chaos, stands in for a typical beach getaway. Using these exemplars in place of actual locations helps in both these cases because I say a lot of bad things about them. More than once, Bedlam describes the diner as the worst eatery in all of Philadelphia, and Coventry seems to be full of snobby rich people who have no problem socializing with a potential murderer. In no way do I want to suggest these traits are typical of any—and definitely not all—diners and beach towns.
And, occasionally, I even use real places in my book, doing the necessary research and/or checking with locals to compensate for my own lack of local color. The Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square, the Franklin Institute, Morimoto, and Wissahickon Park are all legitimate Philadelphia landmarks. (Fun story: I got the sites for Sebastian and Carrie’s day in Philadelphia by asking my Philly-resident sister and her boyfriend, “If you were going to die and only had one day left to spend in Philadelphia, what would you do?” Well, I asked my sister, and she asked her boyfriend. And she phrased it, “If you were leaving Philadelphia forever and only had one day left to spend there, what would you do?” Apparently my version was overdramatic.) The mall Bedlam visits in Iowa in Chaos really exists, and I have visited the Vatican Museum. The North Pacific Gyre is also a sad phenomenon I thought worth including, even though my proofreader wasn’t sure people would have heard of it.
My current work in progress is more of an epic fantasy in that it takes place in a completely fictional world. This presents a boatload of new challenges I hadn’t even thought about before people started reading it and saying, “Wait. I’m confused.” If I tell you that a story takes place in present day Philadelphia, the average reader can make all kinds of assumptions about the governance and culture of the city. But if I tell you we’re in Valeriel City, and the queen’s picture is on the front of the newspaper, all your expectations go out the window. It’s an interesting challenge.
And maybe one day I will take on the even greater challenge: actually leaving my apartment and finding a place in the real world to write about.
Melissa MacVicar lives on Nantucket Island where she writes novels and teaches writing to seventh graders. She loves eating sweets, Downton Abbey, fantasy football, and wearing comfy pants. She loves to get messages from her readers so don't be shy!