It’s hard to write about places you’ve never been. You can research all you want, explore it through Google Street View, talk to people from those places… but if you’ve never actually had a firsthand account of a location, it’s always going to be difficult to write about it. It’s doable, but takes a lot of time and effort. If you put in the effort, though, it will be worth it; just keep in mind the obstacles you will need to overcome if you choose this route.
So, you could do this…
Or you could make it up.
Yep. That’s what I’m doing. No, not making up details about places I’ve never been to. I’m making up a town.
In the current manuscript I’m working on, a big chunk of the setting takes place in a small town in Maine. Now, I’ve never even been to the northeast of the United States, let alone Maine. I had my heart set on the name of the town and the general layout, but as I got deeper into my story, I realized that the image of the own in my head is completely different from the actual town in real life. Somewhere along the way, I stopped basing the story off of a real place and started to construct one in my imagination. Now as I’m writing a new draft of the same story, I’ve decided it’s best to just create my own town for my characters to live in.
If you are going back on forth on whether you want to set a fictional town in the real world, here are some of the pros and cons to help you decide whether it’s the best option for your story:
- You avoid offending people. This is probably the biggest pro on the list. By creating your own fictional town, you don’t have to worry about upsetting any real people who live there because…well, the town is fake. There’s no one to upset. You can make a town overridden with drugs and crime and corruption, and you won’t have anyone coming after you with pitchforks. You don’t run into the problem of feeling obligated to portray a town in a positive light.
- You have more creative freedom. If the farmer’s market needs to be close to a character’s house for your plot to move forward, you can make that happen with ease if you create a fictional town. You don’t have to arduously slave over Google Street View in order to try to find real life locations to use. You also don’t need to worry about trying to describe everything in the town in correct, accurate detail, because whatever you write will be accurate to the town you make (just make sure to make things consistent, of course).
- It’s just fun. I personally think it’s a lot of fun to make up your own town. There are so many different possibilities! You can make up a place you would love to live in or despise. You get to think about the types of people you want to live there. You get to make the teen hangouts, the main street, the creepy lake people avoid, the bad part of town and the good part of town. It’s empowering and entertaining to construct your own fictional place! The passion that you put into it will reflect in your story. You, the writer, have power to make readers mentally travel to the town YOU’VE created.
- You still have to put in a lot of work. I’m not sure if you consider this a con, since if you have committed to a creative project you already know you have to put in a lot of work, but I’ll list it here anyway. If you are thinking that because your town is fictional you don’t need to put in as much work, think again. At first it seems easy, until you actually have to start to think about all the details that you need to know in order to make the fictional town seem real. Who is the mayor? Is the population primarily one demographic? Overwhelming political views? Religious views? How big is the town? How was the town first established? Where is the town located, exactly? Population size? Crime rate? Do residents of this town use any unique terminology? These are just some of the basic things to think about when constructing your own town.
- You miss an opportunity that may have added to a real town’s culture. Let’s face it: everyone likes to read about the town they live in. If you decide to create your own town, you give up the chance to shed light on a real town that may never have gotten written about before. Plus, if you set a book in a real, rural town in Kansas, you’re much more likely to have many people from that actual town pick up your book and read it. You will probably even be more likely to have chances for book signings and speaking engagements in that town if your book is published, but that’s much further down the line.
- If your town isn’t properly fleshed out, readers may look down upon your writing. Even though your town is fictional, if you fail to create a town that makes readers believe people would actually live there, it will be glaringly obvious. Setting is very important. Nobody wants to read about a boring, generic town with vague descriptions and half-developed history. You will really need to focus on bringing your town to life through your words if you want to make a good impression on the reader. If you don’t do this, you will lose credit with the readers and it may make them think poorly of the rest of your story.
The location your story takes place in is an essential aspect of your story. It’s important to think carefully about whether you need a fictional town or a real town for your story to take place in before you start writing. I hope this short list of pros and cons helped jump start your decision process.
My question for you all is this: Do you tend to write more fictional towns in your stories, or do you prefer to use real places?