Using the Real World

When I first wrote I Am Not a Serial Killer, I set it in the imaginary town of Clayton, in the county of Clayton, somewhere in the American midwest–far enough north to be cold and snowy, with enough forest for my narrative needs while still being sufficiently barren for my tonal needs. It is not a real place, and was never intended to be. Then, in Mr. Monster, I wrote a conversation between various kidnapping victims and realized that the first question they’d ask is “where are we?” I wanted to be able to provide them with a real answer, so I pulled out a map of the US and pored over it very carefully and decided that Clayton was somewhere in North Dakota. I retrofitted this fact into the first book and sent it out into the world.

But I wasn’t very happy with it, and my US editor, Moshe, wasn’t very happy with it, and we both realized we liked it better when Clayton was just an everytown, existing everywhere and nowhere at once. We changed it back, and managed to catch every edition but the British one. That’s why if you have a UK copy of the first book, it’s in North Dakota, but if you have any other book (including the UK Mr. Monster) the location is non-specific.

For my next book, the schizophrenia thriller Pain of Glass, I decided I wanted to set it in a big city, mostly because the Cleaver books were in a small town and I thought it would be fun to switch things up. I hunted around and found that Chicago fit my needs nicely, so I set it there, but as I wrote I don’t think I ever came right out and said “this is in Chicago.” I stole a lot of the street names from Chicago, made up my own mental institution, and kept the book in a kind of quasi-real location, not really Chicago but not really not Chicago, either. Which kind of fits the theme of a book about schizophrenia, so hooray for that, but mostly it was just easier that way.

But I am not, shall we say, a person who likes to do things the easy way. For my current manuscript, Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition, I decided to set the book very firmly in New York City. I researched streets, neighborhoods, locations, and more to make it fit. I looked up what brand of grocery store my Queens-based protagonist would shop in. I determined which subway lines the various characters would take, and what stops they would use. As the story expanded I set each new piece in another very real part of the real world, both US and abroad, finding which cities had the right feel, which public event centers had the right capacity, and which island nations had the right extradition laws. I want this book to feel like Earth–not just an Earth, but our Earth, with a sense of reality and immediacy that will make, I hope, all of its problems feel more grounded and familiar.

I Am Not a Serial Killer needed to be vague, and EM:AE needs to be specific, and Pain of Glass needs to be somewhere in between. Different stories require different things, even when they’re all set in the same (sort of) world.

2 Responses to “Using the Real World”

  1. Interesting to hear, Dan! Interesting concept.
    I tend to use a “parallel Earth” for most of my fantasy stories, so I can avoid the trope of a magical world hidden amongst the real world (which isn’t a *bad* trope, but I like experimenting with how magic affects societies). In the end I still do a lot of research on the places I set the stories in, but if there are some unintentional incongruities, it can be attributed to the story not being in “our world.”

  2. any time you need a small town with small town values you can borrow mine..West, Texas. population 2,915. When some people I knew were going to move here(13 acres, 3bd/2 bath, tank, outer sheds for office etc. and trees every where for $219,000) I told them to set their watches back 50 years ’cause West is still in the 50’s…czech us out…

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