Making It Real

Hoh River Cascading Through RainforestWhen I first started writing my Birder Murder Mystery series, I wanted readers to feel like they were actually walking in the footsteps of my protagonist, so it was a logical choice for me to use real locations for book settings. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much readers enjoy books that take place in areas they know and how much those real places can shape what I write. Once I figured out that my real locations were one of the more powerful means of attracting readers, I began using real places as much as possible, not only for marketing later, but to provide me with inspiration for other pieces of my story.

As a result, I now take detailed notes of places I visit in the course of my book research. Fat Daddy's BBQ in WeslacoFor instance, last January, I was researching McAllen, Texas, for my next murder mystery. Since friends had recommended I try the barbeque at Fat Daddy’s, I made sure I had lunch there one day. As I ate, I observed that large groups of National Guardsmen sat at many of the tables, which I also noted in my daily travel journal, along with descriptions of the patriotic posters and flags adorning the walls. When I developed my plot, I found that the soldiers I’d seen could play into my story in a critical juncture, so I wrote them in – something I never would have come up with if I hadn’t personally visited Fat Daddy’s. Now, when anyone from the area reads the book, they’ll immediately be able to say, “this author really was here!” and it gives me the instant credibility which every fiction writer craves to lure readers into the story.

diner open signAnother big benefit of writing real places into your books is that some readers identify so much with a favorite place, they tend to talk about your book simply because of the setting. In one of my books, I used a small diner where one of my daughters waitressed years ago. Not only did it give the story a strong local connection, but once it was published, the diner owners prominently displayed the book, which delighted all their customers, who then told their friends that their favorite diner was in a book. By using the diner as a piece of my story, I also didn’t have to think twice about what that setting would look like, because all I had to do was describe what I saw.

Perhaps the best guideline I can provide about using real places in your fiction is the rule my publisher gave me: If you say nice things about a place, use the real name; if you want to be negative, make up a place. That should give you more readers and happier business owners (who will become your friends if they aren’t already!), and much less chance of getting sued.

Who knows? You might even get a sandwich named after you…

7 Replies to “Making It Real”

  1. Jan –
    How well I’ve learned what you said…that readers love real places, especially ones they know well. I’ve had readers follow my protagonist’s route and try to locate murder scenes. I’ve had people buy the book just because it was set at Edisto Beach, without cracking the book open. People love to relate to a book and location is a strong connection. Thanks for the message!

    Hope Clark

    1. Thanks for commenting, Hope. Giving readers a grip on your book is always a challenge, but familiarity of place is a point in the author’s favor. I find it opens dialogue at book talks, too!

  2. Great advice. When I started writing fiction, I decided to use areas that were familiar to me and I haven’t looked back. People tell me now that reading one of my books makes them want to visit the area I live in or they say they are nostalgic to come back. You’re so right – the little details really matter to local people. Great post.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Do you feel like a travel guide sometimes when you rely on real spots? I should ask the local parks to give me an honorary ranger’s hat, I think, since I send so many people out to visit!

  3. This is great advice!
    I am currently planning a series of fiction/ fantasy novels.
    Instead of using a location which would be completely unfamiliar to readers and me, I used the city I have grown up in, and famous locations in the city as the back drop.
    It is wonderful because whenever I pass one of the locations, I instantly think of my writing and get butterflies!

  4. I love the idea of a daily travel journal. Of course, I Do like to journal, but I’ve never considered having a journal specifically for recording the details around me–even the places in my local community & daily life. I’m not a fiction writer, but I do see the need for this kind of info in my nonfiction pieces. Since a lot of businesses are interested in paying bloggers for a piece about their business or towns, this tip might just help some of us as we seek venues to supplement our income a little. Just a thought …

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