Sunday, June 20, 2021

Location, Location, Location

What lengths do you (or would you) go to in order to get the geography right in your books? Is it okay to take liberties?

Good Monday morning. Brenda Chapman at the keyboard.

My first books are set in fictional towns so that was easy peasy. I was the town planner, mayor and puppet master, making up locations to suit the story. My last two series have been set in real locations -- Stonechild and Rouleau in Ottawa, Kingston and surrounding towns, from Montreal to Toronto. I used Google Earth and maps to get the geography correct, and made several field trips to Kingston to scout out locations.

My other series of novellas, the Anna Sweet mysteries, are set in Ottawa. I've lived in this city of a million people for well over half my life, and know its streets and neighbourhoods well ... sort of well. Still, I used the maps and Google Earth to research locations and to get the street names and one-way streets right (Ottawa has a lot of one-way streets.)

All this is important homework because I've got very little sense of direction. Turn me around a couple of times and I have no idea where I am. I have to look up directions even for places I've been to previously. Often, I can't remember being there if enough time has passed. So getting all the details right for a book takes a lot of work for me, and I realize that I don't always get it right. So I'm all for taking liberties :-)

A fellow I know from curling bought my books at a store signing. He later commented to me that I'd had my character go north instead of south to reach the on-ramp to the main thoroughfare. Luckily, most people don't know the city that well and he was the only one to notice (or at least to tell me). I'd been warned that readers will point out any errors, such as a car driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and I've been somewhat fortunate that my slip-ups have mainly passed unnoticed.

As for taking liberties, in Cold Mourning, I moved a stretch of undeveloped field over a couple of blocks to suit the story. In general, I invent restaurant and hotel names when I'm setting criminal activity there. No proprietor wants to see their establishment become a murder scene, even if fictional.

In my seventh and last Stonechild book, Closing Time, I shifted the action to a fictional wilderness lodge and cabins east of a town named Searchmont. Now while I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, my neck of the woods was a considerable distance westward from where I set the story. I'd spent overnighters in Sault Ste. Marie (the Soo) and Sudbury on my way to other places, but I'd never been to the town of Searchmont. I'd have loved to make a field trip to explore the area, but Covid and lockdown put an end to that idea.

I relied on the tried and true Google Earth and maps of the area and took liberties when necessary. A reader emailed me that she had a cottage in Searchmont and loved reading about the area in my book. Guess I got enough topography right! 

Mixing fictional with real seems to be more and more my modus operandi. It would be great to take more field trips to get all the details correct, but barring that, I continue to rely on memory, research and my imagination. I try to get the details as accurate as I can, and enough readers have emailed me that they love revisiting these places in my books, so that's good enough for me.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

I agree about taking liberties, Brenda, partly because we won't always get every detail right, and partly because sometimes altering a detail works better.

Brenda Chapman said...

Thanks Dietrich!

Susan C Shea said...

Hey, it's fiction, right? I did use an actual small museum as a crime scene in one of my French village mysteries because it was just too perfect. But I made it clear this was entirely fictional and gave a major shout out to the real museum and its director in my acknowledgements. She is 94 and French, speaks no English, and I doubt very much she's read the book.

Brenda Chapman said...

Susan, I agree, we're making up stories so why not adjust the setting now and then if necessary? The mix seems to work.