location, location, lo…

It’s a frequent question in writer circles: can I set my story in a place I’ve never been? How much research do I really need to put into my setting? Can I name real places in my book?

There are about as many answers as there are writers, but here’s my two cents.

In Not Your Mary Sue, the first half of the book takes place “on an island in Lake Superior” and the second in an unidentified town in Illinois, so you can probably guess some of my answers from that. There are plenty of islands in Lake Superior, so just because you’ve never seen an island like the one I described, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (I’ve also had to explain to multiple people that yes, the water goes all the way to the horizon – largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world, after all – because Superior is hard to imagine if you’ve never been here.)

Jay’s unnamed private island was my solution to the challenge of finding a location in the 21st century where my main character could be held captive and not be able to call for help. In Misery, Stephen King traps Paul Sheldon by a combination of factors including a dead landline (King didn’t have to deal with cell phones in 1987) and a pair of broken legs keeping him from escaping the isolated house in which he found himself. NYMS was written in 2017 and published in 2022, so I had to figure out the cell phone problem.

Cell phone coverage has increased in the UP since I first moved here, but it can still be slow or completely absent. Before we moved into our house we had to check and see if the internet even reached it, so not all of these technological advances are a given. When you drive across the UP, there are places where you phone goes wild because it suddenly has signal again and pings everything at once. And there aren’t cell towers in the middle of the lake. Add in the fact that Marcy can’t swim …

So it looks like I lean toward making it all up.

Especially with that unidentified Illinois city in the second half, right? Except, for the story, that location didn’t matter as much. Marcy wouldn’t have gravitated toward Chicago, because she didn’t need to be near another Great Lake, and it had to be still somewhere in the Midwest for plot travel time reasons, but otherwise … it wasn’t as restricted. There was nothing particularly special that meant I wanted, or needed, to tie it down to a single location. Let me put things where I want them, because there it’s the relationships and interactions that matter.

On the island, knowing about the location mattered.

Remember these?

I went to various beaches and took these photos because of how much Superior played into the story. I knew about the isolation and the cell phone signal issues and water as far as you can see. If I’d never been to the UP or lived in these rural areas, it wouldn’t have occurred to me as a solution to my isolation issue. But I do live here, and I know what it’s like to live here, and isn’t Superior gorgeous after a storm?

Blood Sisters all but swings to the other extreme.

It’s probably the more expected version of “Write what you know.” The book opens in Cyberia Cafe, in Houghton, Michigan – I could point you to the exact table where Skye waits with her theory that her twin sister isn’t dead, but a murderer in hiding. Characters meet at the KBC (Keweenaw Brewing Company, for the uninitiated) and get burritos from Rodeo and eat at The Library (which is near the one with the books) and get fishbowls at the Ambassador and celebrate at McLain State Park with cakes from Roy’s Bakery and and and …

You could go to all these specific locations because they exist. (Well, at least for now – the parking deck won’t be around much longer, and 5th and Elm moved across the canal to Hancock, but the book’s set in 2019.) I know how long it takes to travel various places, how to navigate the Yooper Loop, and how you can expect traffic to stop when the bridge lifts for the Ranger to come back through. I was at Michigan Tech for graduate work from 2007-2015, and I’m still close enough to easily visit, so I know the area. I don’t have to depend on Google street view.

And, as a reader, I’ve been burned before.

There’s a certain disappointment when you read a book that specifically names the location as, say, the city you grew up in … and then completely botches the layout. I once read a book where the chapter title listed my hometown, city and state, and then said the character was in the parking lot outside of two stores … that have never been next to each other. (It went downhill from there.)

Now I understand that the author wasn’t from Michigan. In this particular case, the author wasn’t American. It doesn’t seem likely to me that the author had ever been to my hometown, or at least hadn’t gone looking for those business to get the lay of the land. (It’s not just that they’ve never been next to each other – a character got into the surrounding area and it wasn’t realistic, either. If you’ve never been to my hometown or haven’t paid attention to those businesses, you wouldn’t know, either.

But I knew, and it bothered me.

Which probably explains my own personal response:

Keep the location vague so I can make it up entirely, or make it something I know quite well.

That’s my two cents. How about you? Have you set a book in a place you’ve never been? How did you handle the research?

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