Robert Lopresti is a 2018 Derringer Award winner. His collection Shanks On Crime was recently republished in Japan. His nonfiction book When Women Didn’t Count was recently presented with the Margaret T. Lane/Virginia F. Saunders Memorial Research Award. Here he talks about the fictional setting for several of his tales, including “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests” from the current issue of AHMM.
I recently realized I have been working as a sort of regional planner for a piece of nonexistent geography called Brune County.
The first story I wrote about the place was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts” (AHMM, May 2004). It concerned a car accident and the only landscape described was a crossroads and a hill. Not much of a world yet.
The second story, “A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters,” (AHMM, May 2014) showed us at least one house, one wealthy enough to merit an estate sale when the owner died.
And completing the hat trick is “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” appearing now in the November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. This time I take readers on a much more extensive tour, showing them an unnamed town and some hilly farm country that borders the estate of a software billionaire. Each story, of course, is populated with the sort of people I think belong in those locations.
When I wrote the first tale about the place I had no idea that more would follow so I have been cobbling together Brune County a scene at a time. Not the most efficient form of world-making, I admit.
But this is a challenge every writer of fiction faces: Do I write about real places, or make them up?
There are advantages to both approaches, of course. Write about Times Square in New York City and you automatically have an audience of millions of people who know what you are talking about without a single word of description. But if you get a detail wrong those readers will let you hear about it—if they don’t stop reading in disgust. Not long ago I read a novel by a favorite author and was startled when the main character visited British Columbia and drove from Vancouver to Victoria. That’s a good trick, unless he had a floating car.
Of course, you can make up a place entirely, which can be a lot of work. Is it urban, rural, somewhere in between? Is it New England, the deep south, somewhere midwestern? And then there is the problem of consistency. If you are lucky enough to write many books that attract many readers you may need to reread them all before you write the next one, or your readers will complain about gaffes in your fictional geography, just as if you screwed up the location of Times Square.
A lot of writers choose a compromise: take a real place and give it a new name so they can change details to suit. The master of this was Ed McBain who wrote dozens of novels about the 87th Precinct set in a nameless city which resembled, but was not, New York. The key to following his detailed geography is to turn your map 90 degrees to the right. Harlem is at the north end of Manhattan but Diamondback is at the east end of Isola.
My friend Jo Dereske wrote a dozen wonderful mystery novels about a librarian named Miss Zukas. The books take place in Bellhaven, Washington, which doesn’t exist. It bears a striking resemblance to Bellingham, which does. Jo says she did this so she could move a ferry and eliminate a shopping mall she disliked. She has also had many people tell her they used to live in the same apartment house as Miss Zukas, even though in the real world that building doesn’t exist.
My novel Greenfellas is set in a very real New Jersey, the state where I grew up. I wanted to set one scene at Surprise Lake, but it had been so many years since I had been there that I didn’t trust my memory and, just to be on the safe side, gave it a phony name. One reader asked “Why did you rename Surprise Lake? You described it perfectly. “ Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
I am happy to say I have an idea for another story about Brune County. I can’t wait to see more of the place.