Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pleasures & Pitfalls of Writing ‘Where’ You Know

Amazon, Kindle or print
Author Linda Lovely, who writes the Marley Clark mysteries, is my guest this week.
It’s fun to write a novel that showcases a place you know and love (I suppose it would also be true for a place you love to hate)—a setting you’ve felt as well as seen, a location that sparks passion you can capture on the page.
Yet there are pitfalls in setting a novel in a real locale. How reliable is your memory? Will residents take umbrage if you make mistakes? Will readers draw unintended connections between your fictional cast and real people? Will they forgive literary license if you contradict their memories, their experiences?
I set my new Marley Clark mystery, NO WAKE ZONE, in the Iowa Great Lakes region. Don’t scoff if you haven’t visited. Iowa is not all cornfields. This section, near the Minnesota border, boasts clear blue lakes, towering oaks, trumpeter swans, and the best summer days of my youth.
I can smell, feel and taste the time spent here. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived on Lake Okoboji just outside the town of Spirit Lake. Every summer Mom packed meat loaf sandwiches for our 400-mile car trek to Lake Okoboji. This is where I learned to water ski, where my cousins shamed me into baiting my own hook with a slimy worm, where Bobby Vinton called to the Roof Garden stage to sing with him, where I first tasted saltwater taffy, where I dove off a Camp Foster dock for skin-prickling polar bear swims, where I screamed in terror riding the Arnolds Park roller coaster before begging for another chance to scream again.
As I wrote NO WAKE ZONE, these memories and more surfaced. I felt smooth pebbles massage my toes as Marley, my heroine, waded into Big Spirit Lake. I smelled a breeze heavy with tropical suntan lotion and a hint of diesel from a boat’s four-stroke engine as Marley strolled down her cousin’s dock. I watched ominous thunderclouds mass on the horizon and heard the crackle of lightning as Marley drove past the town’s windmills, arms twirling in fury.
Lake Okoboji, Sunset
Would I have been able to write with equal passion about a location I’d only seen on postcards or visited by video? I think not. These sensory memories made the scenes vivid and real for me. But I did take precautions.
Timelines. I attempted to ensure my 52-year-old heroine never did the impossible. Since she was too young to recall being on stage with Bobby Vinton, I checked with the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see what Roof Garden entertainer might have invited her to share the spotlight. Likewise, Templar Park where I worked as a cook was defunct before Marley reached college age. So I created a fictional retreat evocative of several of the area’s grand old resorts.
Linda and Steve, Fishing

Resident Fact Checkers. My late cousin, Steve Kennedy, helped greatly with my initial research, and later his widow, Mary, tirelessly checked landmark references for accuracy. 
Asking Permission. I shared an early version of the manuscript with Historic Arnolds Park to seek permission to use this classic amusement park’s real name as well as the Queen II excursion boat and the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum.
Note to Readers. Finally, I wrote a note to readers detailing elements that were totally my invention and why. For instance, I made no attempt to research the community’s actual law enforcement hierarchy, because I knew how I wanted my investigation to play out.
Kindle or Print
Do you like to read about real locations? Do you expect authors to be faithful to every detail or do you give them leeway for plot requirements? If you’re an author, how do you cover the bases when you set your books in a real place?
About Linda
A journalism major in college, Lovely has made her living as a writer, tackling everything from magazine features and ad copy to speeches and brochures. Her manuscripts have made the finals in 15 contests, including RWA’s prestigious Golden HeartÒ and Daphne du Maurier competitions and mystery contests such as Deadly Ink, Murder in the Grove and Malice Domestic.
For more information about the author and her books, you can visit her website at: www.lindalovely.com


Polly said...

Nice post, Linda. I have one book set in the town where I live now and another set partially in the town where I grew up. I renamed the former, but anyone who lives here knows the nickname I used. I didn't change the name of my hometown. Another of my books is set in New Orleans, but I made clear much of the area was imaginary. It's always a slippery slope when a writer sets a story in a real place. All we can do is beg forgiveness beforehand and hope no one is offended. It sounds like you covered your bases. It also sounds like a wonderful place to visit.

Linda Lovely said...

Polly, thanks for commenting. I've read your books and you do a great job with setting and atmosphere. I agree with you about the slippery slope. Sometimes it's impossible to use a real setting because readers might (rightly or wrongly) guess that your fictional characters are based on real folks.

Kathy McIntosh said...

Good post, Linda.
My first novel is set in a fictional town near some real towns. I wanted the flexibility to create a setting of my choice.
I set an earlier novel in Boise, where I live. However, it hasn't (yet) been published and so much has changed that readers would think I created my own reality in a real place.

Linda Lovely said...

Kathy, that's always a danger. Even if everything is 100 percent accruate at the time of publication, it won't be for long. Restaurants close, hotels change names, today's technology goes obsolete. There are definite advantages to "fictionalizing" real places.

Judi said...

Like your topic as I always place my stories in real (and gritty) places. 1st book in ozarks, 2nd in urban detroit, and 5th book in Winnipeg. I don't see a danger - I do good research and use Google maps to refresh my memory of those places - Detroit was easy since I grew up there - didn't matter if it was absolutely accurate - it's Fiction! I took lots of liberties with places but used real ones also.

Linda Lovely said...

Judi,you're right. It is Fiction, after all. And even GPS maps aren't absolutely accurate. They think the best route to my house is a road abandoned years back.

Mary Sutton said...

As a reader, I expect authors to take license with things like restaurant or building names (especially if they are crime scenes - I mean who wants that kind of publicity?). But I expect a degree of authenticity. Don't describe a lake where there is none, or put a mountain in the middle of the plains, you know?

I've written one story set in Puerto Rico, where I spent 3 months. I relied on memory, but fact-checked through the Internet. I've also written a story located where I grew up (Western New York) and a series of short stories set not far from where I live now (Fayette County, PA). I'm planning a trip to do some background research on that one with a friend.

So, it needs to be a balance. Writers can't be slaves to detail, but readers do expect authenticity.

Linda Lovely said...

Good points, Mary. My husband and I laughed like crazy when we watched an episode of '24' and a character talked about the mountains in Iowa.

Dawn Dix said...

My novel is based in NJ and the surrounding towns I've lived in for the last 8 years. There is only one address where I have a fictional street name. I think it's a good thing to write where you're familiar with, as it helps provide accuracy. Some people LIKE to read about areas that are familiar to them. For instance, all of Harlan Coben's books are set in NJ, so naturally, I enjoy that aspect...beside the fact that he's a terrific author, of course

Cindy Sample said...

Linda, your writing is so lovely, it makes me want to jump on a plane to Iowa right now. My series is set in the gold country of California and I use real places except where I kill people. But my books have become so popular with the locals that two wineries have asked me to murder someone in their vineyard!

Loved both your books. Keep them coming.

dkchristi said...

I agree - the writing in the blog is so beautiful I want to get in my car and drive on over...I wrote about real places in Ghost Orchid because I had an ulterior motive - I wanted readers to so love the Everglades (a new audience to that environment likely) that they will participate in its preservation. www.dkchristi.webs.com

GBPool said...

Now that we have Google Maps where you can get down on the street and "look" around the area does make writing about places we don't actually go to easier. I even "road around" on a bus from somebody's video on YouTube. He was in Marrakesh. But a little reality and a little fiction sure makes for a good story. But I like it when the writer tries to be honest about the locale.

Linda Lovely said...

Cindy, I love that wineries have asked you to murder someone on their property! I'm assuming, though, they'd rather the poison is ina French wine. Dawn, agree with you on Harlan Coben, and D.K., your descriptions of the Everglades do make one want to preserve the beauty there. GB, I haven't tried using Google maps that way, but I will if only to refresh my memory.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Linda and Ellis,

I used real places for Death Legacy because it's a mystery thriller. Since I do know New York City and Washington D.C. very well it was helpful. However, I still required research for authenticity.


Jacqueline Seewald

Pauline B Jones said...

I think for the most part, people are interested to find their town or city portrayed, but there are some things authors shouldn't mess with. I think it was John Grisham who had a character having a bagel at Cafe du Monde? Could never, ever happen. They only serve beignets.

Ellis Vidler said...

Linda, so far I've used places I know or have visited for the primary settings (upstate SC and Williamsburg, VA), but I do send my characters to places I don't know. I use a number of research tools for all of them--maps, Google, interviews, youtube, travel guides--there's so much available now. But I add fictional homes, streets, businesses, and features in appropriate places. It's fun to do.

Good post. Thanks for being here this week!

Joyce Lavene said...

Real places as mystery settings can be great but also perilous. If you don't get everything just right, you may hear complaints. On the other hand, if you're careful with your research, people are thrilled to read about places they've been or where they live. Finding the right place for a story is important, whether it is real or not.

Linda Lovely said...

Jacqueline, I think big cities may be more forgiving locations than small ones as their inhabitants/ visitors can't have combed every street. Pauline and Joyce, those little mistakes about details are ones I worry about making. Ellis, thanks for having me. It's fun hearing other authors share how they handle locations.

Susan Whitfield said...

Good post, Linda. I'm ready to pack my bags for Iowa. All of my books are set in North Carolina. I'm a native and have lived on both sides of the state and traveled to every "corner" of it numerous times. While I try to showcase places in my books and want authenticity, I write fiction and take great license with places. If I use a real town name, the restaurants, churches, schools, etc. have fictional names. I'm currently writing my fifth Logan Hunter Mystery and she's in a school setting. As a former high school principal, I'm certainly familiar with that setting, but at least one person dies. So there's the rub.
In Hell Swamp I used The Black River Plantation as the crime scene.I asked the owner about using its real name. He was thrilled. There have been several movies made there, and he most graciously gave me a key to the mansion and we're now best buddies. I've given him copies of my whole series and he keeps them displayed at the mansion for folks to look through. Sometimes folks enjoy the notoriety and sometimes I suppose they don't. If I think a problem could arise, I ask.
I agree that there needs to be balance in writing.

Joanne Guidoccio said...

Excellent post, Linda! My WIP is set in my hometown. While I haven't lived there for 30 years, I do visit often. While writing my book, I was careful with the details about restaurants, shops and streets. I've double-checked most of the details. In a few cases, I'm deliberately vague. I like your idea of using a disclaimer.

James S. Dorr said...

I had a story set in late 1950s Boston with one scene in the Park Square Trailways station (the protagonist had just come in by bus) which gained a comment on a rejection from an area publisher to the effect that if I meant the Park _Street_ Station (an MBTA [public transportation] station which also existed in the 1950s-60s) I had various details wrong. That wasn't the reason for the reject so I just sold it elsewhere where the editors wwren't local "experts," but wrote a thank you note to the first publisher noting incidentally that the Park Square area had since been changed due to urban renewal, giving him the new name, but also pointing out the refeences to President Eisenhower etc. in the newspaper the protag saw there as a clue thet the story was not set in the present. One of the hazards, but hurried editors don't necessarily read that carefully on a first go-throgh so it's no big deal (if it was an editor I'd worked with before though, I'd probably point something like that out in a cover letter).

The town the protagonist was coming from, on the other hand, was deliberately made up (East Haven, as I recall -- a plausible suburb of New Haven CT although not real, but, since she had just gotten out of a reform school there, I didn't want to saddle it to a real town.)

Peter Green said...

Linda, As the others have said, you make the place sound so enticing I'd like to visit, which is easy by car from St. Louis, and I can't wait to get NO WAKE ZONE. I wouldn't know what to do without using real places--it's such an inspiration to become immersed again in a place I've been. I fictionalize and disguise poeple, re-named and even re-located restaurants (except well-known and beloved places), venues, suburban towns and some streets. My general rule for CRIMES OF DESIGN was: be specific about cities, foreign places and historical events, institutions, characters and landmarks. But be vague or ficitionalize about place names and use them ficionally. Old photos, internet research and Google satellite maps and ground photos help with details you can't check otherwise. As with Patrick, my architect-protagonist, we'll see how much trouble that gets me into. Great post. Peter

Gloria Alden said...

I made my setting in a fictional town in the area I've lived in all my life with references to real places. I feel that gives me a little more freedom.

Linda Lovely said...

I enjoyed reading the new comments. Susan, I've enjoyed your books and your care with settings. Joanne, James, Peter and Gloria, looking forward to reading your books. Spoke at a Literary Luncheon yesterday and the door prize in the drawing was to be a character in my next Marley Clark mystery. Will see how this works out--the winner was an attorney!

Radine Trees Nehring said...

All my novels have been set present-time in real places and--since they all take place in state or national parks, historic sites, or long-time tourist destinations--I don't worry about vanishing locations. However, I don't think it would matter in my case, even then. They're true at the time the story was written. and I always reserach meticulously on site. I also always involve local people (usually workers at the site) in research, and have never found them anything less than helpful and enthusiastic.

But, on the other hand, a good friend (author) wrote novels set in Montana before she'd ever been there, working--back in those days--from Chamber of Commerce material she sent for. A couple of people thanked her for taking them home again to Montana so accurately.

Patti Brooks said...

I needed to have a restaurant scene in my novel-in-progress and chose a reataurant in a near-by town that has been there for years and years. I needed the reatuarant to be on the water, and that was the location of this restaurant. So I took a drive over, thinking I would have a drink at the bar and re-establish my "feeling" for the restaurant -- and found it closed up tight! Had to find another restaurant -- perhaps a drink or two as well.

GG Byron said...

Linda, I can't count the number of times I drove to Annapolis, visited my college there, toured the Naval Academy, and drove to my victim's home town on Maryland's Easter Shore for authenticity for "Annapolis Roses." Fortunately, at the time, I was living in Maryland!