It’s Not as Easy as it Seems: Using Real Locations for Your Book’s Setting
What was I thinking? I’d just finished writing the Texas Dreams trilogy and had loved creating the fictional town of Ladreville, so when my editor asked me to propose a series set in Wyoming, why on earth did I choose Fort Laramie and Cheyenne for the settings? Did I have a sudden memory lapse, forgetting that the one time I used a real city as a location for one of my secular romances, I agonized the entire time I was writing it, worrying that I’d get hate mail from a reader, telling me that such and such a street wasn’t cobblestoned at the time of the book?
The truth is, I chose real settings for two reasons. I haven’t queried other authors, but I suspect that if they use real places for their books, their reasons are similar. So, what were my reasons? The allure of reality and increased marketability.
Let’s start with the allure of reality. “Real” fiction would seem to be an oxymoron, wouldn’t it? After all my Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines fiction as “something invented by the imagination or feigned.” And yet, even though the stories are fictional, I know that readers of historical fiction enjoy learning facts about the time period and that their enjoyment is enhanced when they have the opportunity to read about places that they may never actually visit.
I could have set Summer of Promise at a fictional fort in Wyoming, but using Fort Laramie, an important and well-known location, gave the book added appeal. That’s the reason I asked that the back cover copy specifically mention Fort Laramie rather than simply saying ‘Wyoming.’ It’s too soon to tell, but my hope is that readers who haven’t picked up my earlier books will be intrigued enough by the Fort Laramie connection that they’ll read it.
And that leads me to the second point: increased marketability. Revell has a superb marketing department, but I still think it’s my job to help them. One way of doing that is to get my books into places that wouldn’t normally carry fiction.
Fort Laramie’s gift shop is a tourist’s delight, filled with books and souvenirs. The books, it should be noted, are mostly non-fiction. I knew it was a long-shot, but I really wanted them to carry Summer of Promise, so I approached the Historical Association.
The general manager was intrigued by the premise of the story, and she loved the cover. (Note: the background is a scene from Fort Laramie.) But, since we’re dealing with the National Park Service, there’s a rigorous selection process. Not only did several people on the staff have to read and review the book before they could consider carrying it, but the park superintendant asked them to answer one key question: “Are the details in the book authentic?” It was only when the readers could answer ‘yes,’ that the Historical Association could order copies of my books. I have no idea how many additional sales this will mean, but each new reader is important.
We’ve talked about the advantages of choosing real locations for a book. Now I’d like to debunk two myths.
“Of course you should use a real location. It’s easier,” one author told me. I disagree. Although it’s true that you don’t have to invent street names and other details about the location, the opposite side of that argument is that you need to know all those details. Simply having a general idea and then fudging won’t work.
Which is the perfect segue to the second myth: readers won’t catch small errors. Trust me. They will. That’s the downside of increased marketability. Among the new readers that you’ll attract by using a real location are those who are experts on that location. While they might forgive a few discrepancies, chances are that if you make serious errors, they’ll tell you and – even worse – the world. Are you willing to risk having reviewers post your inaccuracies? It’ll happen. And even if your mistakes aren’t paraded for the online world to see, there’ll be negative word of mouth. None of us can afford that.
So, how do you avoid bad reviews and what I call hate mail? There’s no panacea, but I have a few hints.
1. Read everything you can about your location. I find the reference section of the library to be a particularly good source of information, especially when I ask a librarian for assistance. Searching the card catalog reveals many books, but librarians are the experts. They’ve pointed me toward books that I would never have found otherwise, books, I might add, that have proven invaluable. Those included diaries of people from the time period which provided a number of important details, including the weather on specific dates. Readers may not know that my descriptions are accurate, but I do, and that helps me overcome those worries about hate mail.
2. Look for picture books. The adage about a picture being worth many words is true, and never more so than when you’re trying to discover what buildings or streets looked like many years ago. I’ve found the Images of America series to be extremely helpful. Not only are there hundreds of old photographs in them, but the commentary is typically written by local history experts. While I borrow most reference books from the library, the Images books are ones I own, because I find myself referring to them almost constantly during the writing process. (And, no, I don’t own stock in the company.)
3. Visit the site at the appropriate time of year. Although I had made two research trips to Fort Laramie before I wrote the book, one was in late summer, the other mid-autumn. Since my book began in June, I knew I had to return to the fort then. I was so glad I did! Not only did I discover that the grass was green then, whereas it had been golden brown on my other visits, but I was able to see how much higher the river was. Those and a myriad of other details made their way into the story, adding the authenticity that readers expect. I know it’s not possible for everyone to travel to a location, especially at a specific time of the year. If you can’t, search for local residents who can help you with details. Which leads me to my next hint.
4. Enlist local experts. Although I’d read stacks of books about Fort Laramie and had visited it several times, there were still things I didn’t know. As an example, most visitors to the fort are familiar with Old Bedlam, the large white building that served as the bachelor officers’ quarters for much of the fort’s history. The problem was, at the time my story took place, Old Bedlam had been converted to apartments for married officers. I could find no reference to the building that was used as the BOQ at that time period, so I consulted the fort’s librarian. She and one of the park rangers pulled out maps and records, and when they couldn’t find any definitive information, they helped me to choose a plausible location.
5. Don’t make assumptions. This is actually a corollary to my first two points. On one of my visits to the fort, I took a picture of two uniforms displayed in the fort’s museum. One was clearly marked ‘infantry,’ and since my hero was a lieutenant in the infantry, I used that picture as my source, describing the single-breasted coat in great detail. The problem was, once the Images of America book on Fort Laramie was published, I started studying it and discovered that many of the soldiers wore double-breasted coats. Why was there a discrepancy? Again, the fort librarian was of immeasurable assistance. She provided me with a book that detailed Army uniforms during the nineteenth century. Half an hour with that book revealed that the uniform in the museum display was for an enlisted man, while the double-breasted coats I saw in the pictures belonged to officers. My description had to be changed. Would a reader have caught the error? Possibly not, but I’m glad I discovered it.
6. Lastly, if you take liberties, tell the readers. There are times when an author wants to bend history for the sake of the story. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, we’re dealing with fiction. But if you do decide to stretch the truth, perhaps by placing a real person in a city where he or she might not have been, mention that in a note to readers. They’ll appreciate it, and so will you, because your note will forestall criticism.
If I’ve made using real locations as settings for your stories seem like an overwhelming burden, let me assure you that it’s not. It can be fun to learn the details of a real place and share them with readers. A real location can help you market your book. And it can attract new readers to your books.
Would I do it again? Maybe.