Do you ever wonder how a novelist chooses a setting? Me, too. Really. Because the entire world is open to us, and sometimes all those choices can be daunting.
When the time came two years ago to begin planning a new series, I had all the usual options.
Should I use a real town (like Toms Brook, Virginia, in my Shenandoah Album series) or a fictional town (like Palmetto Grove, Florida, in my Happiness Key novels.) Sometimes, of course, what I decide hardly matters. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen Whiskey Island (of my book with the same title) referred to as a fictional peninsula in Lake Erie. For the record, it’s real.
Should I write about a city I know well, or one that would require constant research? Not as easy as it sounds. Someone well acquainted with a place may not notice how fascinating the details he or she takes for granted might be to readers.
Should I write about a place so colorful it almost becomes a character in my novel, or a place that recedes into the background?
Should I choose a place with many different kinds of people, or one whose characters will come from a similar background and outlook?
As you can imagine, I gave this a lot of thought. One of my brainstorming friends suggested Asheville, North Carolina, and I tussled with myself. I know Asheville fairly well, but not perfectly. I have a son there, own a house there, visit there regularly. I’ve spent many summers in Highlands, not far away, and understand much about mountain culture from those years and an earlier year as a VISTA volunteer in the Arkansas Ozarks.
On the minus side? Asheville is so rich in its own unique culture, that I’ll never quite be an insider. On the plus side, what I witness, I pay close attention to, because it’s new to me, and absorbing because it is.
On the minus side again? Asheville is easily recognizable. As a novelist I’ll be forced to change things to suit myself. Real restaurants will rub up against fictional ones, for instance. If I need a park with certain playground equipment, I’ll need to make it up. And when we mix fact with fiction, readers sometimes confuse fiction with mistakes.
In the end, though, how could I resist? If you need convincing, too, just watch the irresistible video above. The Spirit of Asheville, produced by exploreasheville.com, says it all. I think you’ll see the rich potential for background that I did, and beginning in August, I hope you’ll be glad to share and explore with me, this unusual, vibrant city in the heart of the Blue Ridge.
Ive been to Asheville once. It is definitely a place where I would like to return. Can’t wait to read about it from a non-tourist perspective!
I’ve been to Asheville once too and I can’t wait to return. It’s such a creative town, I would love to belong to a quilt guild there. Maybe it can be our retirement home someday.
I had to comment: I started reading Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series when I lived on the West Coast and never ever dreamed I’d someday be living in Richmond, Virginia. She used real places in her settings and when I found myself living there, I re-read the books and went looking for those places, guess that makes me some kind of fan-girl or groupie or something 🙂
What I’m not a fan of is a setting that is recognizable but the name of the town has obviously been changed. Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa? Come on, it’s Santa Barbara. I’m not a writer so I don’t understand the purpose. Wikipedia tells me Ross MacDonald did it first and Sue Grafton did it as a nod to him.
Earlene Fowler explains in the FAQ on her website that fictionalizing the name of the town (San Celina vs. San Luis Obispo) gave her more freedom and flexibility with the details of places around the town. I get that, so maybe I should cut Sue Grafton some slack 🙂
Earlene is absolutely right. For some of the reasons I explained in the blog, we can’t keep everything exactly the way it is in real life, but if we change things, we get in trouble with readers. So one way to fix that is to change the name of a place. However, I’m not fond of doing that, so I either use a real place and call it what it is, or I invent something completely fictitious. However, this will come back to haunt me, I’m sure.
And yes, wouldn’t an Asheville quilt guild be the absolute best?