The Danger In Place Names

Reality is part of what makes good fiction work. From literature of place to a post-apocalyptic view of a well known city, those little details can be part of what really drives a piece of fiction home.

Or… it can be what completely pulls the reader out.

I was recently reading a book set in Ohio, my stomping grounds. I’ve been here my whole life, and while I can’t say I know everything about it, I do know what kinds of trees are here, what wildlife you can expect in certain parts of the state – and also what simply wouldn’t be there. I know the lay of the land – literally. From the Appachian foothills in the south to the flat plains in my part of the state, I have a pretty good general idea of what Ohio looks like, where.

So when the character in the book I was reading encountered a toll road in a part of the state where there simply isn’t one (it’s not hard to spot – there’s only one), I was completely taken out the book. Was there a toll road I didn’t know about?

A quick Google search told me that no, there wasn’t. And while I can’t claim that it ruined the book for me (it certainly didn’t), what it did do was put a speed bump in my way. I was jolted right out of the story, the narrative was broken, the fictional world I’d invested in shattered based on a simple mistake.

And that’s what it is – an easy, simple mistake. I’ve made more than a few in my own books, so I’m not faulting the author. What I did take from this experience was the solidifying of something I’ve suspected for a long time… it’s just easier to make shit up.

I usually set my novels in fictional towns, the generalities are covered – regional area, state, etc. – but I tend to avoid specifically stating a town or city where my characters are… and this is exactly why. I want my readers to stay invested in the world I’ve built around them, which is a fictional one. When what I’m trying to paint for them doesn’t jive with what they know as fact, it throws a wrench in the very tenuous spell that fiction weaves.

This is personal opinion, and there are great – and true – arguments for using real settings in your fiction. If that’s what you prefer to write, I completely support that.

Just make sure you know where the toll roads are.

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The newest ep of the Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire podcast is up! Join myself and guest Randy Ribay as we talk about the importance of having an agent in order to negotiate the best possible contract, the power of writing concisely and how to make time to write while holding a day job.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/pkcw6-8e6a2b?from=yiiadmin

5 thoughts on “The Danger In Place Names

  1. Hi Mindy. I enjoy reading books where the scene is set in a place I am familiar with and I don't mind a shop or restaurant not being there, but a toll road! The landscape has to match or it's not real. The same goes for the plants and animals one would expect to find. You are spot on!

  2. In one of my unpublished works, I set the story in a real New Jersey town I knew well and cited several locations that I knew were no longer there (the story was set in 2001 quite purposely); most of them were around at that time, but not all of them. The purpose was probably only for me: I wanted to recognize loss. The loss of place, the loss of history, and ultimately the loss of innocence and trust. That was a major underpinning of the story. But many of my early readers completely missed it, and I wonder sometimes whether it was important enough. The writer's job is to entertain, after all, not confuse. And seemingly misplaced businesses — we have more than enough toll roads in NJ to keep you in the story 😉 — can confuse people.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Michelle and Matt! Yes, that toll road really threw me… but again, this is part of who I am as a writer informing my reading. Ten years ago I probably would have let it go, as a reader. Now, with my author mind constantly humming, I had to know if this was accurate or not.

  4. I was listening to the part of this podcast where you were telling Randy something about working with your critique partners, and I have a question about that that I've been wanting to ask someone for a long time. A lot of writers (such as yourself) talk about their critique partners and it seems like it's always something like this, “So, I was telling my critique partner, Maggie Stiefvater, blah blah blah…” And I always read the thank yous at the back of YA books, and it seems like these published authors are always like, “I just want to thank my humble little writing group: Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, John Steinbeck's ghost, and Shakespeare — you guys are the best, especially (insert inside joke here)!” HA HA HA!

    Ugh.

    So my question is, how do you YA authors always end up with such fantastic critique partners? Where does one even go to find a critique partner? Not necessarily an A-lister, as I am not deserving—but someone who would at least be a peer. And preferably non-crazy.

    Thanks
    Ed

  5. I actually met all of my critique partners at AgentQuery Connect which is a forum for aspiring writers. The first group of CP's that I met there have all gone on to become published authors themselves. So, you'll see me talking about RC Lewis – she's been with me for… gosh, 10 years now?

    Other times you pick up CP's post-published. So, I use Demitria Lunetta and Kate Karyus Quinn, who also debuted in 2013, and we met each other through a debut group.

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