Monday, August 1, 2011

Mixing real world and fiction

I spent a large part of my weekend researching, gentle readers. My manuscript takes place in New York, a place I haven't visited (yet) or lived (maybe yet), so I was a bit vague on location descriptions and transportation methods in the first go round. This next pass at editing is focused on nailing down exact locations and weaving in the feel of neighborhoods and movements through the city. One of my fellow critters (who lived in NY for 15 years) was kind enough to give me the lowdown on neighborhoods and potential locations for the main settings in my story, and I've now got a concrete map of the story.

In my research this weekend, however, I ran up against an interesting dilemma - marrying the real world with a fictional world. Obviously New York exists, and pretty much every square inch of the city (at least Manhattan) is claimed, so inserting fictional locations into what is arguably the most well-known city in the world is tricky. Do you invent an address? Take over an existing building and make it your own? Modify the purpose of said existing building?

Yeah. Tricky.

I've run into this dilemma before with historical writing as well. As soon as you decide to write about a fictional character interacting with real people, you've got historical timeline to juggle. Do you make up a title for someone? Or choose a less well-known title and attach a made-up person to the title?

For me, it made the most sense to do a little bit of both. If I could get away with making up a location (like a warehouse or a coffee shop), I did. Where I couldn't (like dropping an entirely new building into a famous stretch of road), I used Google Street View to find the perfect building to "steal." And let me tell you, gentle readers, Google Maps and Google Street View were my best friends this weekend. I don't know how people wrote about places they'd never been before the internet. Or maybe they just didn't.

So my question goes out to all of you fiction writers today: How do you insert your characters and locations into the real world? Do you hijack existing locations for your own purposes? Or do you prefer to create new locations that don't exist on a map?


Creepy Query Girl said...

I guess it depends on what you're writing. I mix and match- creating a town that doesn't exist but could, kwim? Like, you could find out why streets and buildings in manhattan were named the way they were- wars, generals, history, politicians, cultural districts, etc... and make up something relevant.

Christina Lee said...

This is a good one!!! Yep, I'd do it the sme way, invent it as long as it makes sense to the city!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I make up my own cities. Problem solved. It's trickier if it is from a real city like NYC. I read somewhere that it's okay to make up streets and buildings that don't exist. What you don't want to do is mention one that does exist and get a detail wrong. Someone will call you on it. That advice with in the book Elements of Fiction Writing: Descriptions by Monica Wood.

Anna Banks said...

Ohhhhh, yes, do tell! Most of my book takes place on the Jersey Shore, but I didn't want to take the risk of offending anyone particularly enamored with their stretch of soil, so I made up my own town in the middle of a few others. I even went so far as to research the local real estate websites/listings to get a feel for what the homes looked like in the surrounding areas. Kind of fun, actually. :)

Lola Sharp said...

It IS tricksy...but sounds like you went at it perfectly.