Monday, August 13, 2012
Reality or Fiction?
LUCY BURDETTE: We've probably talked about this before (what haven't we talked about??)--but it's on my mind as I scramble to the finish line for Topped Chef. I like to use real places in my books. In the case of the food critic mysteries, this means real Key West restaurants and even some real characters. I can wallow in chocolate crepes at La Creperie or shrimp and grits at Louie's Backyard because it's critical research.
I do have a couple of guidelines: I won't pan places that I dislike (because who needs bad publicity and lawsuits) and I would never poison someone in a real restaurant! There are drawbacks--like people pointing out little mistakes in my geography, and shops disappearing by the time the book hits bookshelves. (In AN APPETITE FOR MURDER, I mentioned Voltaire Bookstore, whose bones are sadly now interred in a bookstore graveyard!)
On the other hand, readers seem to like the realness of the series. Here's an email I got last week from Sharon Porter: "I enjoyed your descriptions of Key West. Because I've never been there, I used street-view in Google Maps to locate the eateries and other locations you used as background. It was great fun and made me feel as though I was there with Hayley in the story!"
I loved hearing that! So how about you Reds, how much of what you write is real? And for readers, do you like your settings real or imaginary?
ROSEMARY HARRIS: Whenever I ask my husband a question and he answers "Both!" I want to scream - but I'm about to do the same. I do both. My first three books were set in the fictional town of Springfield, CT - somewhere in between Boston and New York and light years from both. I thought it was safe to create a fictional town and I would be spared the research on non-critical details that were not germane to the story. Not so. Someone complained on Amazon that the town was not in southeastern CT (It is if I say it is...)and someone else wrote to the publisher to say there was no mountain in CT as high as one I describe. Cripes! It's not as if I said Everest was in Fairfield County.
So I write an amalgam of real and fiction. Slugfest is set at a legendary northeast flower show which was originally supposed to be the Philly Flower Show, but I quickly realized that I'd hurt feelings - and possibly never be invited back - if I didn't move it. I don't think the story suffered and the folks at Pennsylvania Horticultural Society promoted it on their blog so that one turned out okay!
HALLIE EPHRON: The idea for Never Tell a Lie came to me at a real yard sale at a real Victorian house around the corner from me. The wonderful house that David and Ivy own in the book is in the same exact location as the yard sale house. But the details and interior are a fabulous Victorian that my husband and I bid on when we were house hunting years ago. The people who bought that house found a hidden room which of course I had to put in the book.
I'm taking a risk with my next book ("There Was an Old Woman") which is out in April, setting it in a completely fictional neighborhood (Higgs Point) in a real geographic location (the Bronx near the end of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge). I've made up everything about this neighborhood except its location, its view, and its history. Hopefully those who know better will be kind.
And Lucy: I think you should organize a Snow food tour of Key West - I'd come!
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: THE OTHER WOMAN is set in Boston. Real Boston. A big scary scene takes place on the Esplanade--you know, the field by the Charles River where they have the fourth of July fireworks? But there are things I just don't want to do--like have someone killed in a real place. And there's a campaign headquarters in a real building--I can picture it and know right where it is--but I change the name of the building. Jane Ryland lives in Brookline in a place I know very well..but I changed the name of the street.
So I add places that don't exist, and then in the acknowledgments, say: I've taken some liberties. If you weren't familiar with Boston, though, you'd never know.
RHYS BOWEN: I have set myself the daunting task of setting my books in a real place and time. The Molly Murphy series in New York City, early 1900s. Molly lives in a real house (and I had the joy of the present owner writing to share pictures with me, inviting me to their block party). So everything has to be right. She buys a hair ribbon from a real dry good store. She dines in a real restaurant. Luckily this was the age of the Brownie camera so I can find a photograph of almost any street and see the name of the tailor's shop. This pays off as I've got many letters from New Yorkers telling me how I remind them of their early childhood.
All this work might not be necessary but if I use names and places that people know to be real, it affirms the reality of the story.
In the Royal Spyness books I have to be more careful as much of the story takes place in London--which I think I know well and thus don't double check. I made one awful mistake when I put Claridges on the wrong street (and my parents lived next door to the night manager of Claridges. How can I live that down?)
So now I am more careful.
JAN BROGAN -I've approached it both ways. Both Final Copy, which was Boston, and the Hallie Ahern series in Rhode Island made good use of reality - and I think most readers get a kick out of knowing the street where Hallie lived or the restaurant where she ate or the lake where the dead body was dumped. But I also wrote a novel called The Devil In Waverley, where the town of Waverley was a fictional seaside town that the tourists passed as they sped by on the highway on the way to Cape Cod. The town itself became so much a character that I had to make up everything from its whaling history to its crazy annual Fourth of July display to the tradition it had for burying its most prestigious citizens. And I have to tell you, I don't know if I've ever had so much fun.
Now, I'm back to reality- st least reality in 1860. As Rhys had already pointed out, it's another layer of challenge getting it all right when everything looked so much different back then.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I love historical fiction, but honestly, I don't know if I could do the kind of research Rhys and Jan have committed to. I've heard readers are even more unforgiving of historical errors than they are of firearms...and we all know what happens if you get a gun wrong in a book!
I made Millers Kill, the scene for my novels, fictional precisely to avoid people telling me I got this street or that shop wrong. On the other hand, I know that part of New York State very well, and the three towns covered by the MKPD are based on real places: Hudson Falls, Argyle and Fort Edward, NY. I try to create a sense of reality by having the people in Millers Kill interact with real things in the area: they read the Glens Falls Post Star, they listen to WAMC, they go sailing in Lake George and shopping in Saratoga.
Of course, I didn't know when I started out that eight books in, I was going to have a four page name bible so I could keep all my made up streets, highways,
neighborhoods and businesses straight!
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I take pretty much the same approach as Lucy. Most of my settings are real. You can walk down the streets in Notting Hill, and although I never say exactly where Duncan and Gemma's fictional house is, you can probably find it (Although theirs is actually quite different from the house in that spot. I love using real places and hopefully making them come to life for the reader. However, I do NOT say negative things about real establishments. And sometimes I change a name of a place I do like because I've put in characters that are, of course, fictional. In the new book (The Sound of Broken Glass, out in February) I've called a real pub, The White Hart, The White Stag. The White Hart is a very nice pub, and you can easily find it on the map from the description in the book. But I've given the fictional manager a name, so just felt more comfortable giving the pub a fictional name as well. So it's just little tweaks like that. Keeps you guessing...
And for fans of the series, if you do a walking tour in Notting Hill, you won't find Otto's Cafe. It's magic--it only appears for the characters.
How about you Jungle Red Readers--reality or fiction in your fiction?