Is it better to base a novel in a real location or a place of fiction?
My murder mysteries take place in Blossom Valley, a small town just over the hill from Mendocino. While Mendocino is an actual place on the Northern California coast, Blossom Valley only exists in the landscape of my mind. Still, people sometimes wonder if the town is really a cover for Boonville. Or perhaps Willits. In actuality, Blossom Valley is based loosely on the Ukiah of my youth, when the town was a lot smaller, and I was too. I’ve brought the place up-to-date with coffee shops and wine stores to give it a current vibe, but I try to retain the small-town charm that I remember.
Part of the reason that I chose a fictional location is that no single place contains the exact businesses, parks, and layout that I’m looking for. At least not a town I’m familiar with. Instead, some towns are too small, others too big. Some are more of a lumber town, while others are a little too upscale. So I created a new place. As I mentioned, the major components are based on Ukiah, but certain factors have been rearranged, such as new businesses added or existing ones taken away. When I need a bar with animal heads for ambience down by the lake, I just put one there. No fuss, no muss.
Of course, even with a place that doesn’t exist, I still need to keep track of which businesses are where. I hope to never receive a letter from a reader pointing out that Ashlee went to the dentist in the exact same location that was the post office in a previous book. I guess I could make up an excuse about government spending cutbacks and how they had to close the post office in between books, but it seems easier to simply keep track of the businesses in the first place.
Knowing where everything is would actually be easier if I’d based my story on a real town. The place is already mapped out for me. If I forget which street the yogurt shop is located on, I can always Google it. I wouldn’t have to scroll through previous chapters to try and find that description for the Eat Your Heart Out Café to see if the inside is done in a 50’s diner style or an 80’s rock motif. Again, I could go online and find out in less than thirty seconds.
Then again, using a real place could potentially rein in creativity. If a writer needs an igloo repair shop in downtown Honolulu for a particular plot point, they can’t just stick one there. Any reader from Honolulu (or anywhere else) will immediately cry foul.
There’s really no right answer for whether a book should be set in a real or fictional location. They both have their pros and cons, and authors often struggle with the choice. I know I did. But as the plot of my first book progressed, I realized a fictional town was the best option for me. I’d love to hear from other writers on how they decided where to set their books. Also, how do you readers feel? Do you prefer a story set in a real place, or do you like to see what kind of towns writers create?