Setting: Real or Fictional

By Brian Thiem

My wife and I were on vacation last week, and whenever I visit new places, the writer in me can’t help but think about using these settings in stories. The ideal setting for my characters’ romantic getaway, or the perfect place for a murder (I do write crime fiction after all).

We were at a mountain resort on Lake Lure in North Carolina. Much of the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed here, even though the story took place in a fictional resort in New York’s Catskills. The resort had a lake, large mountain mansions, lake-front homes, condos along the golf course, and a quaint town nearby. Everything necessary for fictional characters to run wild in stories. Perfect places to dump a body. Secluded spots to plan killings. Unique places to murder—beating to death with a golf club on the 16th green, where a Dirty Dancing scene was shot; stabbing through the neck with a broken pool cue in the clubhouse; weighting a body and dropping it off a pontoon boat in the lake; pushing the victim off a cliff on a Chimney Rock hiking trail.

My first series took place in Oakland, California, a city I knew well after working there as a cop for twenty-five years. I find most police procedurals are set in real places. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch feels incredibly authentic partly because it takes place in the actual Los Angeles. The stories of triller writers such as Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney feel so authentic because they’re set in locales around the world that the authors actually visited.

Cozy mysteries are usually set in fictional places, possibly best epitomized by Cabot Cove, the fictional Maine coastal village where Jessica Fletcher solved hundreds of murders. I just sent a manuscript to my agent about a story taking place on a fiction island in coastal South Carolina. Although it was fun creating my fictional locale, creating a fictional setting was also more work than I had imagined.

A writer friend recently called me for some cop-stuff advice. She wanted to write a story where a detective resigned from policing in one state and took a job as a cold case investigator in Atlanta. Of course, a fiction author can write whatever they want (it’s called fiction after all), but large police departments don’t hire cops from another state as detectives. They must go through another academy then work uniformed patrol for years before they can get assigned to investigations. All cops know this, as do many readers.

If I were to write a novel about a detective working at Atlanta PD, I would need to do extensive research about the department before writing. As an alternative, I might change the setting to a fictional small town. A small department might more likely hire an experienced detective from another agency as a detective.

Although there is more flexibility when setting a story in a fictional locale, unless it is fantasy or such, real-world rules still apply. For instance, it must still be hot and humid in August in my fictional coastal South Carolina setting, and although I love a romantic scene of a white Christmas sitting in front of a roaring fire, if my characters want to experience that, they must head north or into the mountains for the holidays. And even in a fictional setting, an NYPD detective won’t be directly hired as a homicide detective in California.

When writers consider whether to set a story in a real or fictional place, they must choose between research and designing. Both methods require work. Although I spent thirty years in law enforcement, I did a few “ride alongs” with detectives from a local South Carolina police department and worked with the sheriff’s cold case team, because policing is not the same here as in California. What I learned allowed me to not only ensure my police characters acted authentically, but it also helped me “design” a realistic fictional sheriff’s department in which my main character works.

Although many writers enjoy creating a fictional local and like the freedom it gives the story, in many ways it’s less work to set a story in a real place. I remember sipping my morning coffee on the back porch of our rental condo overlooking Lake Lure last week, as the sun rose and birds woke. It was still chilly enough that I had to pull on a fleece jacket. In my fictional South Carolina locale, my character will have to settle for overlooking the salt marsh and will have to wait for October before it’s cool enough to wear a fleece jacket in the morning.

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