Location, Location, Location: A New Character in Town

Last month I revisited Blood Orange Brewing by Laura Childs. The Tea Shop Mystery series takes place in the city where my children were born: Charleston, SC. As I turned the pages, I recognized the picturesque gardens, the stately homes South of Broad, and the quaint shops dotting downtown. The images in my mind were clear and familiar. As Theodosia Brown sleuthed her way around the city, I settled into the feeling that I had come home.

Likewise, I recently picked up a book I hadn’t read in years: Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts. In Braun’s classic cozies, the setting is Pickax, a completely fictional town where the state is never mentioned (although many believe it to be the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Over the years I have read the Cat Who… books and the fictional burg of Pickax is as real to me as Charleston, a city I have lived in and loved.

Now I’m agonizing over the location of my novel. At first, I thought it would be easy: I would make up my own town, putting into it all the places I need to tell my story. The college would be on the west side of town, the antique store is on Main and Michigan, the library is in the old Victorian mansion on Orchard Avenue. I even drew a map showing where things were in relation to the scene of the crime.

The problem? It didn’t feel like home. I wasn’t believing in its existence and if I didn’t care, how could my readers?

I’ve been twisting my brain into French knots wondering how to turn this around. Do I switch to a real location or rework my fictional village? Better yet, do I mix reality with fantasy to create something fictional but relatable?

I’m leaning toward the last option, but I also realized another little thing that is holding me back: I’m not very good at describing a location.

No matter where my story is set, that hiccup in my skill set will sink me every time.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the only way I will get good at something is to practice, practice, practice. Writing is no different and, while I may be good at some things, I will only get better by writing more. In other words, if I want to get good at creating a setting, I have to write about my locations.

I have a special notebook that is small enough to slip into my purse but big enough to hold my ideas. My goal is to take it with me wherever I go and describe wherever I am. I’ve tried it a few times. It’s not easy. I feel a little awkward, truth be told. But I know that the more observant I am now, the better my settings will be in the future.

What about you? What kind of locations bring you closer to the story? Do you appreciate places you’ve been or does it drive you nuts if there’s one small thing out of place? Or is a fictional town more your cup of tea? I’d love to know.

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