Writing Question: When establishing settings for your story, do you use real cities or do you make up your own? When using real cities, do you use the names of real streets, stores and other businesses? If you make up your own, how based on reality is your fictional town? Some one asked in a writing group I’m in.
This is such a great question.
I’m writing historical fiction. For my first book, Descendants of Hagar, I created a town in Georgia, called Zion. Zion is based on three years of research into small black towns. I researched building materials, terrain, farming, political and economical conditions. I also read what dialects existed throughout the south. I looked up what major events would have influenced the window of time I chose. Then I combined everything I knew to build the perfect setting for my story. This next historical novel is based in New York.
Due to being a finalist for a writing award I had an opportunity to visit New York. I was overwhelmed by the fact that about 85% of the buildings and streets in existence during the early 1900’s are still in use, they’ve simply been repurposed.
My time in New York was limited, as a result, I didn’t get to establish a firm grasp of the area I’m writing about. Fortunately, visiting informed my research and helped me determine where I wanted to visit when I get research funding.
I’ve been studying maps and photo’s of early Harlem. I’m researching housing, clubs, organizations, restaurants, churches and grocery stores my character would have frequented. On my next trip to Harlem, I plan to walk the area my story is centered in. I want to know how far a walk to the grocery store or train station would have been from her flat. I want to know what housing was available. What places would she have passed and what kind of people lived between destinations. So, I’m also researching class and other factors that would have determined how the city was broken up among blacks.
On top of that, I want to consider what scenery she might have seen. She wasn’t born and raised in New York. So the way a new comer from a small town would perceive city living is different from someone who grew up in the same city. I’m looking forward to exploring the different nuances her perspective will shed light on.