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How Important is a Specific Setting?
Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2012 1:38 PM
Joined: 6/13/2012
Posts: 13

Some of my favorite authors are Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, and Patricia Briggs.  I have a lot more, but I'm mentioning these three because they all have series set in a real place/city.  I'm writing a book set in a similar genre.  It falls into several categories, near-future (about 100 years in the future, and I'm still debating that), science fiction, and fantasy (I have psychic phenomena in the book).  I have most of the world-building out of the way, but I have been struggling with whether I should have my character in a real city or not.  I currently live in Wenatchee, Washington and grew up in Sacramento, California.  I've thought about placing my main character in either city.  The problem is I no longer live in Sacramento and was never very familiar with it in the first place.  The problem with Wenatchee is that I feel its too small of a town for what I want to do with the book.  But then again...it could maybe work.

This has been driving me nuts for a while.  Is it possible to write a near-future book based off the real world and not place it in a real city?  Is it possible to place it in a made-up city, and how well would that be received?

Timothy Maguire
Posted: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 8:49 AM
Joined: 8/13/2011
Posts: 272

The quick short answer is yes and no. To be honest, I think you're coming at this from the wrong direction. Rather than worrying about using a real city, you should be worrying about making your city feel 'real'.

The best fictional cities are the ones that feel like living, breathing organisms. Cities like Ankh-Morpork and Gotham City make great, rich backdrops to their stories because almost anything can happen there and it makes sense. Jim Butcher's Chicago works because he's intimately familiar with it and layers the city with its history and politics. Whether or not the city exists is really secondary.

As you're talking about writing a near-future city, you are, effectively, writing about a fictional city, regardless of what you're calling it. The changes you're proposing will change the nature of the city beyond what we know now.
Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 12:21 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

The city I live in now is in many ways radically different than it was 25 years ago when I left it just after college. The section of the city where I live has literally changed beyond recognition in that time frame. I don't think you have anything to worry about if you set your story in a Sacramento that's 100 years into the future. On the flip side, 100 years is also plenty of time for a current small town to become a reasonably large city -- or even for a completely new city to be built. Either one should work just fine, and Timothy's advice is excellent. Focus on making the city seem real, and the reader will feel that it is.

Posted: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 4:21 PM
Joined: 6/13/2012
Posts: 13

Thanks to both of you, that's exactly the advice I needed.  Timothy you're right.  I was looking at it from completely the wrong angle. 

I've been paranoid for ages about writing forums but I have really enjoyed this one since joining it.  It really helps to be able to someone and hash out the stuff that trips me up.

Posted: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 9:50 PM
This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but I wrote about setting and reality not long ago. Food for thought, anyway.


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, February 9, 2013 2:03 PM
Who cares if the city has the name of one that exists today? If that matters, then it follows that using the name of an old city would somehow be better.

What matters to a reader is if, in that tiny slice of time that your protagonist calls "now," the situation feels real to that reader. Who cares that there are acres and acres of cityscape s/he's paying no attention to?

So unless there's a story reason why the reader needs to know the city's name, it can be called anything you damn well want to. Just don't bother the reader, who is focused on the protagonist's situation, with such unneeded detail.

After all, if we need to name the city, don't we need, just as much, to name the neighborhood, the street, the house number, and if the house is rented or owned?

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013 2:44 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Echoing a bit here, so try not to feel cornered.   Vivid settings help the reader sink into a story.  What the settings are matters less than that they fit the story (Downton Abbey set in a California suburb?  No.), and that the settings are vivid enough, but not so vivid as to take over the story...unless the story is about the setting.

Take another look at the authors whose settings really work for you, and consider how they make those cities feel real to you...you, who have lived in a few cities.  Why do you believe them?  How did they do that?  What did they leave out that made it clear the characters knew their cities intimately?    (Those who live in a city notice different things than visitors notice.)   See if you can find books with settings in the same cities that don't work as well for you, and compare: what's in, what's left out, what exactly did the author do that left you feeling the setting was flat, unsatisfying, or just plain wrong. 

Cities have physical sensory detail--the smells, the flavors of the foods, the pavement (asphalt? concrete?  Some stone?), the climate (details), the views--how many parks, what size, what architectural styles, what public artwork if any, what public transporation, if any...etc.)    Cities also have an emotional tone--hard-driving, relaxed, upbeat, depressed, generous, stingy, etc. depending on who lives there and their history.  This can (usually will) vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, within the parameters of that city's personality.   A downtown street in NYC doesn't feel like a downtown street in Chicago or Pittsburgh or Dallas.  

 If you write a city without smells--it won't feel real.  If the architecture is vague--if it gives the reader no sense of what it feels like to be on the street in the business district--it won't feel real.  Think smell, taste, tactile feel, sight, and sound--all that, in every scene.  If your characters don't sense an emotional tone, it won't feel real. 

Then listen to you own story--does it want to be part of an existing city?   If you love a city, you may well want to write in it...use it and celebrate it at the same time.  Even give it the starring role (though more people will buy books about people than about a city, however fascinating.)  As others have said, a fantasy city can be a rich and compelling setting for a story...and so can a real one.  It's all in how you do it.

Posted: Thursday, May 9, 2013 11:43 PM
I guess the person who asked this question has disappeared? The answers are all fantastic.

Posted: Monday, December 21, 2015 6:17 PM
Joined: 6/13/2012
Posts: 13

I did disappear for a little while.  I got caught up with some pretty radical shifts in my life and I'm just now getting things back together.  I moved a month and a half ago (after living in an in bed truck camper for 8 months with three cats) and I'm getting serious about my book again.  I completely forgot about this conversation and I'll be reworking the beginning parts of my book by making up a city and plopping it in North Central Washington, where I lived for eight years and am familiar with the weather.  For now I'm working on getting a first draft through before I go back and rework anything, since that's what seems to bog down my progress.

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