Fictional Real Estate: location, location, and yes, location

Try to conceive of Charles Dickens writing not about Victorian England but about suburban New Jersey in the fifties ala Philip Roth. Then picture Alexander Portnoy in Dickensian London. Take William Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST out of Mississippi and put it, say, in Kansas. Imagine Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade on the mean streets of Mayberry. Lift Pearl Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH out of China and plop it down in Normandy, France.

Some of these new books we might enjoy reading, but they would be vastly different from the originals. Relocating them is more than just moving the furniture, it changes everything – the whole story.

All of this is to say, location matters in novels. Much is made in writing manuals about how location can become a character in a story. It can have moods, think of the brooding moors in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. It can play a role in the plot. What wouldn’t Scarlett O’Hara do to save the plantation, Tara, in GONE WITH THE WIND? It can take action just as the Kansas tornado swept Dorothy to Oz. Above all, setting adds richness and meaning to fictional works. To neglect it is to miss an opportunity.

A good author will take any setting that is close to her or his heart – no matter how humble – and make it matter to the reader. Look what August Wilson did with Pittsburgh in his cycle of 20th century plays. But some of us don’t have settings hard wired into us; we have to choose.

We know firsthand that this is a choice that matters to editors and publishers. We had an editor once who was contemptuous of St. Louis as a setting for one of our books. Who knew? We loved St. Louis, but maybe the eroding industrial base and declining population should have told us something. This was at the beginning of the nineties boom.

In a 2006 survey (the latest we could find) identifies anywhere in the British Isles and New York as top locales for mysteries and romances. After looking at 13,000 titles Bowker found that about 12 percent were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. New York led the list of top cities, followed by London, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C. California topped the list of state locations trailed by Texas, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

So rather than make a Carmen Sandiego spin of the globe for a location for your next novel, you might start with one of these. At least, you will know they are acceptable to the publishing industry. Whatever you choose, go there, soak up the