Locations: Real or Imagined?

I’m 10,000 words into my next novel and this and one is turning out to be a traditional mystery rather than the thriller genre my Steven Hawk/Inola Walela series falls under. Although the location is based on Baker City, Oregon, I’ve decided to create the fictional town Cascadia, Oregon.

I usually perform endless hours researching locations if I’m not familiar with the locale, and a majority of what I write is based on first-hand experiences of the areas I present. This is the first time I’ve built an entire town from the ground up and I’m a bit nervous about this.

For you writers out there, have you created fictional locations for your work? And readers, do you prefer the writer to take you to an actual place?

Deborah J Ledford is the author of the debut suspense thriller novel STACCATO, now available from Second Wind Publishing, Amazon and Kindle. If you’re in the Arizona area, STACCATO can be found at Borders Scottsdale Waterfront, The Well Red Coyote, and Changing Hands Bookstore.


Filed under fiction, writing

9 responses to “Locations: Real or Imagined?

  1. I created a town called Crane Haven, NY for my first book. While I was nervous about creating a setting in northern NY, I found it liberating to create a town from “the ground up” as you said. I could put the businesses where I wanted, the houses where I wanted, the hills where I wanted, etc.

    My current novel is set in my home town back in Nebraska . . . I find I’m having to do much more research for that to make sure I’m getting it all correct.

    Here’s one thing I’ve discovered–I actually enjoy researching the areas I use as settings for my books. I love learning about the history of a place and its people. Do you find the same to be true?

    • I love to research target locations too, Jennifer. I find that even if I know the area well I still need to make sure what flowers will be in bloom at the time of year the novel takes place, if a sycamore tree would be better suited than some sort of pine, weather, phases of the moon in case any exterior night scenes need to take place and ample light will be necessary. The list goes on and on.

  2. I’ve been thinking along the same lines with my current manuscript. I’m not opposed to doing research, but if you don’t have your feet there on the ground and a real familiarity, it’s still easy to make mistakes. I, too, would like to know if readers care about detailed information in a setting if it’s not directly plot related. I grew up in Chicago so when I read a Paretsky novel, the details about the city are sometimes more distracting than enhancing, especially when she had someone with a big bunch of peonies at a time of year when they’re not available. (not anywhere else either) Then, there’s always a chance you’ll refer to someone’s business or neighborhood and offend a whole bunch of folks. With that in mind, being vague might be the way to go.

    • Right, Mickey, at times I feel as though I’m reading a travelogue in some books. And if the location doesn’t really interest me I tend to skip the overly long descriptions. I think the key is to sprinkle in information rather than 2-3 paragraphs of detail.

  3. Both have advantages. I set my novels in Burbank, CA because I lived there for quite a while. My Streets and Trips software shows me exact street names, locations, schools and all that stuff.

    Have a location in Pasadena on a street named Olive Tree Lane. It’s got some trees around it and is near the mountains. I’ve never been there, but What, Me Worry?

    One can drop street names, locations, etc., which give some degree of reality to the setting.

    On the other hand, just create a town the appropriate size and stick it in between a couple other easily-found locations. This can give you climate, landscape (mountains, plains, lakes…) without having to do all that nasty research (does Vermont Street come before or after Harvard Blvd?).

    • That’s exactly what I was thinking with my newest novel, Bruce. I can create elements such as street names and drop in a pond as I know this is where a crucial scene needs to take place. As long as we as writers are true to the region–as far as climate, flora and fauna, etc., I don’t see creating a new world as being a problem.

  4. So far I’ve stuck with the fictional places. Some of my short stories have come directly from staring at the wonderfully spooky old oak woods behind our house as I wash the dishes, but nevertheless are placed in imaginary places.

    The problem with real places is that if you haven’t actually lived or frequented there, and don’t have scads of money to spend visiting to research the place, you are left relying on internet research of often questionable quality. And if you get it wrong, the readers who know you got it wrong won’t necessarily be very forgiving about it.

    With a made up location pretty much anything goes. It’s hard to get it wrong when the place lives only in your head.

  5. I’ve never created a location for a story or novel. My January series takes place in New York City and Backstop predominately takes place in Chicago, with stops in Detroit and NYC. I grew up in the Detroit area and spent enough time in Chicago and New York City to be able to write about them.

    The closest I’ve come to “creating” a fictional place was writing a novella, Chaotic Theory, which takes place in the 22nd century in Lithuania, one of the Baltic states. I tried to be true to that area of the world, which made researching it fun, while allowing for the passage of time, into a future in which mankind is dying, the result of scarce resources, global warming, and other depressing stuff.

    As for reading preference, I really have none. If a writer is doing his or her job well, I shouldn’t know whether they are writing of a fictional location, unless the cover blurb indicates it.

  6. christinehusom

    I have created fictional places, but my current series in set in my home county–fictionalized, of course–so it’s fairly easy to research things I need to know.

    In some ways it’s easier to create a place than use an actual one that requires extensive research.

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