By Russel D McLean
The landlord of a local pub waved at me the other day. I was on my way to the launch, driving with my dad who was helping us take the stock from bookshop to the bar where we were going to do the actual event. The guy waved at us from across the street, so we wound down the window to shout hello.
He yelled, “Them twice! Us once!” and laughed.
Talking about another pub mentioned in the novels. How they’d appeared in more scenes than his own establishment. He was joking, of course, but it did get me thinking about the locations I chose to focus on in the books (and the short stories).
Dundee is a real city with a real history. When I chose it as the setting for my crime novels, I knew I was setting myself a challenge. You always do when you let your fiction impinge upon the real world.
It’s part of the reason why I use real bars (but create fake ones where bad things happen) and namecheck streets on occasion – I want the city I write about to be filtered through the perceptions of myself and my characters, but still recognisable to anyone who’s ever visited the place. But the city is a background on a canvas, not the focus. As a background, it must therefore serve to bring the focus of what I am writing about into sharp relief.
So while my fictional Dundee resembles the real thing – right down to some of the bars, even those mentioned with less frequency than others – I do not think it will ever actually be the real thing. This would be an impossibility on my part and, I believe, actually very dull for the reader.
Look at this way: as true to life as much of George Pelecanos’s DC may be, you bet your ass it is filtered through his perceptions. Same with Block’s NYC, Burke’s Lousiana and so forth. They are filtered so as to fit the world view of the novels in which they are used.
Taking the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, think about how different the city becomes filtered through the procedural eyes of Iain Rankin, the genteel mind of Alexander McCall Smith and the screwed up psychopathy of Allan Guthrie. All of them write about the same city – sometimes even the same places – but they all create such markedly different worlds.
When writing about real places in fiction, a writer rarely does simple reportage. They are always twisting the facts and the reality to fit their worldview. Sometimes they will talk about real places within the city, sometimes they will create fictional locations that seem plausible additions to the real world because they need to make a point, dramatic or thematic (and often both).
I chose Dundee deliberately as a setting not simply because I knew the place, but because I felt the city had something in it that reflected the kinds of stories I wanted to write. And, yes, I had to filter the city to do so, but my hope is that I have captured something of the city that is not simply recognisable to locals, but that feels real even to those who have never been here.
Interesting that you create fake places for the nasty stuff.
Was just chatting with an author yesterday who said he creates "twin" places for his writing because he doesn't want to get in trouble for writing about blowing up the "real" hospital.
I've found the Google Maps and Street View to be great help in working with real places that I've been to, but not recently.
Very eloquent post, Russel. I especially liked what you said about the locale bringing the story into sharp relief, so that people who've never been there can feel like they know the place.
Too often, a writer will get mired in location descriptions to show that he really, really knows his way around, when the location is, as you pointed out, only a backdrop.
I have a novel coming out next year which is set in Houston and New Orleans (both cities where I have lived). It's in the noir subgenre, and I selected locations within those cities best suited to the desperate actions of my characters. These locations help bring those actions to life for the reader, as you so keenly explained.
I'm working on a new book set in Key West (where I also lived for many years). It too is noir fiction, so rather than writing lingering scenes on bright, sunny beaches, I take the reader down back streets and alleys where the tourists never go.
Good post. I remember when I started working in East London in the 90's trying to find all the pubs mentioned in Mark Timlin books.
Google Maps frightens me a lot - - having been in one of their images, the idea of just catching people like that and putting it up on the web... mmm, great potential for misuse.
But to the point - yeah, I think real places are fair game if you treat 'em right. Its all about not offending real people that I use fake places for the nasty stuff (unless its already famed for nasty stuff, of course).
Taking people away from the tourist traps is a good thing. My editor noted that in THE LOST SISTER I didn't use so many well known Dundee landmarks. This was deliberate; I wanted to move the reader away from the comfortingly familiar and into places they might not usually go.
I can only imagine the kind of trouble a Nick Sharman pub crawl would land you in...
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