By Melodie Campbell
Whether to use a real setting or make one up? That is the question.
Butchering Shakespeare aside (which I do cheerfully, if not cleverly) all authors have to decide whether to set their novel in a real place or not. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
In the Goddaughter series, I set the books in a real place – Hamilton Ontario, also known as Steeltown, or The Hammer. Everyone who has ever been over the Skyway bridge on the way to Toronto (one hour from Buffalo) will experience a taste of Hamilton.
“I live in The Hammer. Our skyline includes steel plants. We consider smog a condiment,” says Gina Gallo, the mob goddaughter of the series.
I don’t have to describe much to put you in that setting. It’s sort of like New York or Paris. Give a few landmarks we all know, plus in this case assault your mouth and nose with metallic fumes, and the author has put you there without endless description.
The problem with using a real setting is you need to know the place well, because if you make an innocent error, like forgetting that some streets are one way, you will get hundreds of irate emails from readers who know the place better than you do.
Luckily, I know Hamilton well. I know where to buy the best cannoli (always my test re how well you know a place.)
I use real settings whenever I can. Readers who live in the place love to see their town highlighted. You can often get local media interested in your book. And people new to the location often get a kick out of coming to know it, in a literal way.
So when I moved book 6 of the Goddaughter series to Vegas, I had a dilemma. Here’s the thing. So many people have been to Vegas, that you have to be very careful to ‘get it right.’ I was there a few years ago, and am very aware that things change.
It takes about 6 months for me to write a Goddaughter book. Off it goes to the publisher, who takes about 15-18 months to get it out to stores. That’s the thing about books. Anything on the shelves right now was probably written two years ago.
In two years, things in Vegas change. Hotels redecorate, and maybe change ownership. It became clear to me, that while I wanted this book to be clearly ‘Vegas,’ I needed to be careful. I’ve stayed at the Mirage. I could have used that as a base. But when writing the book, I couldn’t predict how things would look there two years from now.
The answer? Create a new hotel! Make it the newest and hippest thing, so of course no one has seen it before. And that’s where I had fun. What hasn’t been done, I thought? What theme would present a whole lot of fun, yet be completely whacky, in keeping with the Goddaughter series?
Whoot! It came to me immediately. Hotel name: The Necropolis! Theme: Morticia meets The Walking Dead. We could ramp up the loopiness by throwing a Zombie convention. And then add a Viking Valhalla casino, a bar called Embalmed, the Crematorium Grill steakhouse…
So The Goddaughter Does Vegas is a hybrid. The setting is the Vegas you know. The hotel is a new concoction, but fitting with the fantasy atmosphere that Vegas is famous for.
I got away with it this time. I think.
How about you? Do you use real settings or do you make them up? When reading, which do you prefer?