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.
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.