Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Making up churches

Setting. Some people just make it up (think Lee Child and the Reacher novels that happen almost exclusively in a series of fictional small towns). For others, it’s an exotic bonus (say Hilary Davidson and her out-of-the-way locales). For me, it’s central to the story.

Daley Center Plaza, The Picasso and City Hall
In my novel, Chicago isn’t just where stuff happens, its history is part of why stuff happens. When I was in the throes of writing the thing, that caused me some trouble. See, I was suffering from this overpowering obsession to get every detail exactly right.
Problem was, some of the details didn’t fit the story.
My story needed a somewhat grander version of Chinatown than is found on Chicago’s near south side. And a couple of scenes required churches in neighborhoods with very specific characteristics. That was messing with me. I could either mess with Chinatown or mess with a character that was vital to my book. After spending way too much time on Google earth looking at parishes churches all over Chicago’s northwest side, I realized I was also going to have to mess with the churches or else change the way another key character did things. 

Then I had a kind of epiphany. I was writing fiction. That means I get to make stuff up.

So, instead of picking an existing Chicago parish and getting a mess of angry letters from locals telling me how my scene couldn’t possibly have happened at their church, I just made up a new one, dropped it into the neighborhood where I wanted it and bingo. Done. Might be kind of a big deal to somebody. I mean Chicago is a pretty Catholic town. Lots of people, you ask them where they’re from, they tell you what parish they grew up in. I suppose I could still get some angry letters saying there ain’t no such church there, but there you go.

What I decided is this. Even when you use a real setting, what you’re really writing about is a parallel universe. Most of it is the same, but the people in it are made up, the events are made up, there’s no reason some of the setting can’t be made up, too. When I’m writing about some feature of the city that actually exists, then yeah, I try to get that write. But if I gotta fuck with the place to make the story work, then I fuck away. 

So what about the rest of you mopes, you got any thoughts on setting? How much fealty do you owe to it? What kind of liberties can you take?

And yeah Weddle, I know I’m late, but it’s still fuckin’ Wednesday, OK? Cut me some slack here.  


Dana King said...

I'm with you all the way on this one. I try to keep things as real as possible, but sometimes I have to invent something. I never make it too large--like a new airport or downtown nuclear reactor--but little things can be fudged as needed.

The WIP takes place in a fictionalized version of the town I grew up in. (Different name for deniability.) This allows me to have a real place in mind, and I use a lot of real details, but frees me up to invent whatever I want.

Anonymous said...

I have an entire rough draft set in a major metropolitan area that does not exist. If you go to the area where I've plunked this sucker down, you discover that even the rivers and hills don't exist. It's just one big, flat prairie in real life.

But I can tell you exactly how far it is from Cleveland, Detroit, and Columbus.

That's fun.

Plus it saves me from having to drive all the way north to Cleveland for research. (I live in Cincinnati, which doesn't speak to my muse, just my urge to drink beer.)

Al Tucher said...

I may have discovered the ideal setting for making stuff up. I have several stories set in the rainforest of the Big Island of Hawaii, where marijuana farming thrives and whole communities of squatters don't appear on any tax or utility map. It's easy to invent an unnamed mud road through the jungle, or an isolated house with a water tank on the roof and a generator out back. It's not just easy; it's advisable, because visitors are often unwelcome in the real settings.

John McFetridge said...

I think, "It's still fuckin' Wednesday," is a great title.

Maybe a good name for a blog...

David Cranmer said...

You rock, Dan. Not sure kids say that anymore but they should. And good news: it's Friday now.