Real vs. Fictional Locations

Last week, at a meeting of the Long Island Writers Group, I spoke about my experiences as a self-published author for my debut novel Baby Grand, and one of my writer-friends asked how I go about describing places that actually exist. Do I feel like I have to stay true to what is real and visitable? How can I make things up about places people know well?

All good questions.

And I would think the answer is different for every fiction writer.

For me, and I wonder if my journalism background has influenced me, I like to depict a “real” location, such as Bryant Park in New York City or the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, as accurately as possible (keep in mind, however, that this means as accurately as possible from my viewpoint). I like to provide an authentic flavor to the place so that anyone who has been there may recognize it or anyone who has yet to go there will one day recognize it. That’s why I drove up to Albany in May 2010 and took a tour of the Executive Mansion — an important setting for Baby Grand. I wanted to get a feel for what the place looked and felt like. And some of those details, I think, help to tell the story visually.

However, keep in mind, I also throw in all sorts of fictitious details about those “real” places, just for fun. Plus, I have absolutely no qualms about creating totally fictitious locations or settings as well, such as an Albany diner/dessert place named Taryn’s, in order to suit the needs of my novel. Could I have used a real diner in Albany? Sure, I guess I could have. But I didn’t feel the need to. Or want to. I don’t feel any pressure to be accurate. I mean, the governor of New York in Baby Grand, after all, is named Phillip Grand, not Andrew Cuomo (although I do mention Mario Cuomo — that’s the fun of writing fiction!).

It’s the mixing of fact and fiction that makes writing and reading fiction exciting to me, which probably explains why I’m drawn to books like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and authors like Michael Crichton (recreating dinosaurs from the sucked-blood of ancient mosquitoes? sounds good to me!) and why The Da Vinci Code is one of my all-time favorite books — a book that may read like careful, accurate research, but really is chock full of fallacies.

But isn’t that part of the fun? The very notion of “artistic license” is allowing writers of fiction to take all sorts of liberties with fact. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, my author-friend Jeb Ladouceur doesn’t visit any of the places he describes in his thrillers. He just makes stuff up. He doesn’t want the realities of those places to stifle his creativity in any way.

Good for him.

However, my inner journalist won’t let me play that way. At least, not all the time.

How do you go about writing “real” places? Do you feel comfortable taking some artistic license?

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