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Thread: Made-up places in contemps

  1. #1
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    Made-up places in contemps

    So, how do you all feel about made-up places in a contemporary book? I mean like a place that could be a real place but doesn't actually exist vs. setting a contemp in a real town/school/etc. Does a book feel somehow "less real" if you know the place doesn't exist? Do you even care/notice?

    What about a compromise, with the primary setting being a real place, but details about that setting being fictionalized?

  2. #2
    Out on the fjord Ellaroni's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by wampuscat View Post
    So, how do you all feel about made-up places in a contemporary book? I mean like a place that could be a real place but doesn't actually exist vs. setting a contemp in a real town/school/etc. Does a book feel somehow "less real" if you know the place doesn't exist? Do you even care/notice?

    What about a compromise, with the primary setting being a real place, but details about that setting being fictionalized?
    As long as the made-up place feels real, I don't mind. Whether it really exists or not is of little consequence to me as a reader. It's a large world out there.
    If the book by some strange chance was set in my hometown, or a place I'm very familiar with, I would perhaps mind (or at least notice) any incorrect details, but hey, it's fiction! If a story hinges on the meticulous details of a real town, then I suspect the plot would be rather weak.
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  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by wampuscat View Post
    So, how do you all feel about made-up places in a contemporary book? I mean like a place that could be a real place but doesn't actually exist vs. setting a contemp in a real town/school/etc. Does a book feel somehow "less real" if you know the place doesn't exist? Do you even care/notice?

    What about a compromise, with the primary setting being a real place, but details about that setting being fictionalized?
    Opinion: I think your "compromise" is the worst way to handle setting. You've basically pissed off a potential chunk of readership - anybody who lives in that place or has ever visited it - and you've barely started. I couldn't take a book seriously if it was set somewhere I'd been and the author kept getting elements wrong. Just no.

    And I don't see the point. Why not make it up? The vast majority of contemp does. Even if they specify, for instance, a US state, they're often quiet on specifically where it takes place so that they can fiddle with details if necessary. I think you have two (maybe three) ways to go: you set it in a specific place. It's rooted firmly in that place (often because it needs to be) and you are fairly concrete on the details. Or you make somewhere up or skimp on setting altogether by being vague about it, and as long as it functions somewhat like a believable place, people are cool with it.
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    practical experience, FTW KSavoie's Avatar
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    I completely agree with the comment above this one. As long as it feels real most people probably won't even know it isn't real unless you use a crazy name that could never be real! Just make the town feel real and it'll be great!
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    practical experience, FTW eparadysz's Avatar
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    I agree that you're probably best off creating a place, if it's a small town or smallish city. It can be an amalgam of similar places and no one can complain that the details are wrong.

    However, if your setting is a large city, I'd recommend using a real one. Large cities have distinctive characters, and I think if you try make up something that's similar to New York or San Francisco or London or Tokyo (or create something with aspects of several major cities), but with a different name (Gotham City, say), it might give the story a misleading fantasy tone.

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    I like that distinction between smallish places and big cities, eparadysz. That makes a lot of sense.

    I agree that adding fictionalities into a real place for the purposes of a novel is probably a bad idea. I'd prefer to stick with the imaginary place and some small references here and there to the actual universe (state, maybe a university, etc.). I think I'm mostly just second guessing myself because so many of the contemps I've read recently are very grounded in a particular place.

  7. #7
    Inspiration might strike you Penguin's Avatar
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    I think it's a great idea. Just make sure your "place" is believable, and I'm sure you'll be okay . Also, make sure it's not obvious that your substitute place is based off another place, especially if you bash it

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    Think about all of the small towns or even suburbs/neighborhoods of major cities that you've never heard of. No one's going to complain that your setting isn't real, especially if you get on with the story and don't harp on that fact. there are certainly some glaring errors you'll have to avoid, but otherwise, it's not a big deal.


    And anything is better than using a real place and getting all the details wrong.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by eparadysz View Post
    I agree that you're probably best off creating a place, if it's a small town or smallish city. It can be an amalgam of similar places and no one can complain that the details are wrong.

    However, if your setting is a large city, I'd recommend using a real one. Large cities have distinctive characters, and I think if you try make up something that's similar to New York or San Francisco or London or Tokyo (or create something with aspects of several major cities), but with a different name (Gotham City, say), it might give the story a misleading fantasy tone.
    I agree on the city front. Even if I'm setting a story, in, say, London, I'll often make up a small suburb. After all, who can honestly say they can name every single suburb of their city? And as long as it feels real, that's the main thing. I'd much rather make a little town up than use a real one and get it wrong, resident readers won't be happy. Plus finding a town that has everything I need it to have is too much researching effort when I can just make it up, like everything else in the story.

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    Maybe it was Utah. nightowling's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by eparadysz View Post
    I agree that you're probably best off creating a place, if it's a small town or smallish city. It can be an amalgam of similar places and no one can complain that the details are wrong.

    However, if your setting is a large city, I'd recommend using a real one. Large cities have distinctive characters, and I think if you try make up something that's similar to New York or San Francisco or London or Tokyo (or create something with aspects of several major cities), but with a different name (Gotham City, say), it might give the story a misleading fantasy tone.
    I don't really agree with this, I think you can create a large city that works in a contemp. I agree that you should not have a city that has a mash-up of very distinct metropolis features or something (like the Eiffel Tower), but I don't think it's always a bad idea to have a fictional city that is larger. In my situation, there is a moderate/large city that I was inspired by because I like its geographic location and certain aspects, but there were too many fictional restaurants and streets and such that I want to use, so instead of doing the add-fictional-places-to-a-real-city that everyone seems to hate so much, I'll place my fictional city among real ones in my setting's region and have it blend in and hopefully seem totally real.

    I also don't think you necessarily have to be ambiguous or sparse on details if you go the made-up places route. Setting is important to me, so I want to use plenty of details whether I use a real or fictional location. In my opinion, the details would help the fictional place seem more real in a contemp.

    I think some readers will be put off by fictional additions, and others won't be bothered at all. So write your desired location, do your best to make it seem real and fit well in the contemp's "real" world, and then see what beta readers think.
    Last edited by nightowling; 02-18-2013 at 09:48 AM.

  11. #11
    Maybe it was Utah. nightowling's Avatar
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    Now you guys have got me thinking, so a question for everyone - would it be better to just add a fictional neighborhood (which will include all my fictional restaurants, etc) to a real city, instead of replacing the whole city?

    Now I'm thinking that might be a good idea. But I'm confused, because many said that it's bad to add fictional aspects to a real city or get real details wrong, but then people are also advising to just make up a fictional suburb. You wouldn't consider a fictional, added suburb/neighborhood as getting details wrong? Help!

  12. #12
    This is actually a great thread. I'm also sort of wanting to create my own large city sort of thing.

  13. #13
    we're gonna make it out of the fire The_Ink_Goddess's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by nightowling View Post
    Now you guys have got me thinking, so a question for everyone - would it be better to just add a fictional neighborhood (which will include all my fictional restaurants, etc) to a real city, instead of replacing the whole city?

    Now I'm thinking that might be a good idea. But I'm confused, because many said that it's bad to add fictional aspects to a real city or get real details wrong, but then people are also advising to just make up a fictional suburb. You wouldn't consider a fictional, added suburb/neighborhood as getting details wrong? Help!
    Nah. I agree with whoever mentioned the city vs. other places divide. It's like how it's okay to set your story in a real state (and you should set your contemp in a real country).
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    My MS I'm about to query is set in a boarding school that doesn't exist. I don't use an actual school name, though I do name a state. I don't name a town, but I do name the real name of a school that's w/in a couple of hours from my imaginary one. I did a lot of research on boarding schools in the state to get a feel for how I want mine to look (try to find something that sort of matched my mental picture) and found something close. I looked at the campus map to help guide me and give it a realistic feel. I think as long as it sounds realistic (a boarding school setting in my case) that it works. I had 8 beta readers and not ONE of them complained about feeling ungrounded in the setting or feeling it was unrealistic. In fact, one of my beta readers said I really hit the boarding school environment and details on the head, so...

    To me it doesn't matter as long as you are not making shit up for the sake of the plot that wouldn't normally exist in that setting. Like if you were to talk about a setting that takes place in a cabin in the mountains of Long Island, NY, I would frown because there are no "mountains" on Long Island.
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    Scott Turow sets all his legal thrillers in 'Kindle County', which is a fictionalized version of Chicago I believe.

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    I think it depends. Like if you make up a town in Tennessee as your setting, make it consistent with other towns in the state. Same weather. Same culture. Same type of hangouts and hobbies.

    If you make up parts of NYC, you have to be careful not to contradict real places. Don't add a new park or museum, unless it is brand new. Know how the streets and public transportation is laid out. Put your businesses in the business section, the shopping near Times Square, and your schools in the same area as schools currently exist. Know where the good and bad neighborhoods are. You can add or takeaway anything one building (that isn't a household name to Newyorkers). But if your going to dramatically change a town or city, create your own.
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    For me, I like setting my books in real cities like NYC, San Fran, Charleston, SC and NOLA but I have my characters attend fake schools and things like that. I do extensive research into each city (I have Google Earth/Maps open all the time) and make sure I am being extremely accurate when describing the real world neighborhoods my characters live in. I think a balance of realistic and fictional places is integral to making a contemporary/realistic fiction piece stand out. I'm pretty sure the building I have Ithaca and Company living in the East Village isn't really there but it's a plausible assumption that there are still loft apartments there. My advice is to do your research and try to be as accurate as possible. When in doubt, grab a guidebook from the library and familiarize yourself with where it is you're setting your book. There's never such a thing as too much research.
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    My current YA Contemporary WIP is based in a real city. I made up the name for my school and even created its own school crest. I will admit that I had a real school in mind and loosely created my school around it. I talked this over with one of my beta readers who thought it sounded fine...in fact she felt that based on the facts I had given, my school could easily be one of at least three schools.

    I also invented a venue for my school formal....I suppose I am not really one for providing free advertising for already huge corporations. I googled images of ballrooms to help me visualise what I wanted...was actually quite fun now I think of it....I had even more fun shopping for a formal dress for my MC (another story altogether).

    I do agree with previous statements about ensuring that whatever you make up sits happily within the bigger setting of your novel. I have deliberately avoided using a lot of place names for smaller suburbs simply because I hope that my readers will be able to connect with the text better without constantly comparing it to their perception of a real place that I name and describe.
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    Which can you write with most authority? I'm fine with reading made-up locations or real ones. They just have to feel real either way.

    I did recently put down one book supposedly set in a made-up town in my home state because the town name felt wrong. A made-up town was fine by me. But a made-up town name that didn't sound like any of the language groups that I would expect to have named a town in this area? It didn't feel like it was going to get any better from there.

    Quote Originally Posted by meowzbark View Post
    If you make up parts of NYC, you have to be careful not to contradict real places. Don't add a new park or museum, unless it is brand new.
    Or unless you need it for your plot and know how to fit it in. I'm particularly thinking of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night. (Not YA, I know - just an example of partly-fictionalized done well.) Her brief introduction apologizes, among other things, for putting her made-up college on Balliol's cricket field.

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    One drawback to setting your story in a real city with real details is that no matter how much research you do, even if you live there, by the time the book is released it may be out of date. I read a book set in the city where I work, and was disappointed at all the things that the author got wrong--until I realized they weren't wrong, they were just several years out of date.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Saanen View Post
    One drawback to setting your story in a real city with real details is that no matter how much research you do, even if you live there, by the time the book is released it may be out of date. I read a book set in the city where I work, and was disappointed at all the things that the author got wrong--until I realized they weren't wrong, they were just several years out of date.
    I've had this problem with my WIP. They've closed the police station referred to in it. The work has fantasy elements, so I'm hoping readers will accept this in stride. Every place in the manuscript is real, but they don't all still exist. I'd hoped this would ground the story. Considering the fantasy elements, perhaps I'll market as alternate history. LOL.

    My contemporary is in a made up version of my home town. The demographics aren't quite right for where I grew up, so I shifted a little.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Saanen View Post
    One drawback to setting your story in a real city with real details is that no matter how much research you do, even if you live there, by the time the book is released it may be out of date. I read a book set in the city where I work, and was disappointed at all the things that the author got wrong--until I realized they weren't wrong, they were just several years out of date.
    well, every author has this problem.

    The trick is to set it in a specific time, then claim that any mistakes are actual historical accuracies.

    "What, no, my representation of San Fransisco is perfectly accurate. It's just that the book takes place in 2006!"

    And considering how fast technology changes, contemporary authors are going to have to really nail down the time period, so you can shrug off critiques of people who are like, "So, why don't any of your characters have nanotattoos!"

    And you say, "Well, because it's set in April, 2013, not July, 2013."

    And they'll go, "Wow...I didn't know this was a historical. ZERO STARS."
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  23. #23
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    Damn those nanotattoos. They're really going to screw up my WIP.

    Yeah. this is been a really helpful thread. My WIP(s) are set in a conglomerate of a few places, pieced together to make what I wanted. I think it feels like a real place, and it's definitely reminiscent of the approximate location, but I wondered if I was taking the easy route by not putting it in a real place and putting in the research if needed. I don't know why. I've read plenty of contemps in not-real settings. Sometimes I think the curse of writing is the isolation and the second guessing.

  24. #24
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    I have to say, however, my Nanowrimo novella was a pseudo-sequel to Atlanta Nights, and I purposely added location elements that are not in Atlanta, GA. For example, after my MC's dined on Peachtree Ave., they walked down to the Bellagio to gamble. To my credit, I did properly locate the CDC on Emory University's campus.



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  25. #25
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    This makes me think of Sarah Dessen. She's pretty much created a whole universe (Lakeview, Colby, even a fictional university), and it might be silly but every time I read one of her books I feel like I'm returning to a place I know.

    That's probably not at all what you were asking, so basically I would rather have a fictional place grounded in reality (my current MS starts out in an imaginary place in Maine called Liberty Hill, in between Newcastle and Camden)
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