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.