When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, sometimes there’s no place like home.
Over the years, we’ve read a lot of stories set in fascinating places that don’t exist. Babylon 5, Westeros, the Shire and so many other space colonies and fictional kingdoms fill our imaginations, our bookshelves and our media libraries. Urban fantasy, however, told us that the real world could be just as full of wonder, horror, magic and monsters as any made-up place. All of a sudden, we started looking at familiar locations in a whole new light.
To be fair, there are some cities that have always straddled the line between real world and shared fictional universe: London and New York City, in particular. We have read so many books and seen so many movies or TV shows set in those cities that if we haven’t been there ourselves, it can be difficult to remember that they’re real places.
And yet … urban fantasy has been steadily moving out of New York and London for a while now. Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series put vampires in St. Louis, MO. Sookie Stackhouse and her menagerie of vampires, werewolves, witches and were-panthers all called small-town Bon Temps, LA home. Harry Dresden fights all kinds of monsters—and the mob—in Chicago. My urban fantasy series, Deadly Curiosities, is set in Charleston, SC. And it’s not just urban fantasy. Iron & Blood, the steampunk series co-authored with my husband, Larry N. Martin, takes place in an alternative history Pittsburgh, PA where the city is an essential part of the plot. Just like Stephen King showed us that small towns weren’t as ‘normal’ as we remembered them, urban fantasy clued us in to the monsters among us.
What are the rules for using a real city as the setting for your fiction? How do you avoid getting sued if you allege that vampires are actually running City Council? Can you use a city for your setting if you haven’t lived there (or even visited)? Here are my Top 10 rules for setting your monster mash in a real place.
1. Pick a city or small town that has a distinctive personality or regional flavor. The city can become a character in the story, imparting a sense that the characters and the circumstances could only happen in that place. This is where learning about a city and region’s history really pays off, as does a visit (at least one, maybe more) helps you immerse yourself—and therefore the reader—in the location.
2. Do your best to get the details right. Maybe you don’t live in the city you want to use as your setting, or you haven’t lived there in years, or you can’t physically visit. That’s okay—there are other ways to do your homework. Google Earth is your best friend. Go down to AAA and get the city tour information as if you were going on vacation. Buy travel books for that city and region, get maps, watch travelogues and food shows set in the location you want to use. Talk to people who visit there frequently or have lived there to get a sense of local color and how things are done. You want your book to ring true to people who do have first-hand experience with the city, so you’ve got to do your homework.
3. Read other fiction series—even if they’re outside your genre—that have been set in your chosen city to see how other authors evoke a sense of place. Unless you’re choosing a very small town, odds are you can find a mystery series or a Western or a romance set in that city. If you can’t find that city exactly, find something in its region. Then pay attention to the details mentioned in the other books set in that area—regional phrases, foods, etc. Validate, but see what tips you can pick up.
4. Weave local history, geography and landmarks into your plot. You don’t need to give your readers a lecture or a tour, but by dropping in just the right amount of detail, you can make your city setting tangible.
5. When it comes to dodging lawsuits (and I’m an author, not a lawyer), best practice is not to say anything unflattering of someone who is alive or recently dead—unless they’re really famous. This is how ‘Abraham Lincoln—Vampire Hunter’ gets away without a libel ruling. If you’re going to make a local politician a crook, pick a dead politician who has actually been convicted (not just indicted or the subject of scandal). Google your villain’s name with the city and see if you get hits on real people. If so, you might want to change the name so there’s no possibility of confusion.
6. The more implausible the accusation, the less likely you (probably) are to get in trouble. (Then again, there are those people who thought the Harry Potter books taught real witchcraft….) So claiming that a dead senator was a vampire is less likely to be believed than claiming he was involved in taking bribes, child molestation, etc. If you want to use a historic figure, try to pick one who’s been dead long enough (like Abraham Lincoln) that descendants won’t get up in arms.
7. Make up names for characters who are villains or who behave in unflattering ways rather than using real people. Don’t base anything so closely as to be recognizable on local scandals or court cases unless it’s long enough ago that everyone involved is dead and the situation was well documented (newspaper, books) at the time. It’s easier to avoid legal problems than to get out of them.
8. Tie your city setting in to your book launch, giveaway choices, room parties, and other promotions. I’ve been to book launches and room parties that featured regional foods from the setting of the novel—especially great if your city is a foodie haven like New Orleans or Memphis. Purchase souvenirs (online or during a research visit) to use as giveaways and prizes. Have fun with it—you can expand beyond food and souvenirs to stuff from the local sports teams, local cocktails, trivia contests, etc.
9. Reach out to bloggers and reviewers from that city or region as well as local news stations—they might want to feature your book if they aren’t the kind of place that has already been used as a setting by many other authors.
10. Share the extra history, lore, urban legends, historic scandals and other information you researched but didn’t use in the book on your blog along with your photos from the research trip to help your readers really get into the setting.
Finding a real life setting for your fiction can be a fantastic way to add sensory details and make the story real for readers. Along the way, you might just discover a whole new favorite home away from home!
My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here: www.AscendantKingdoms.com
Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors http://on.fb.me/1h4rIIe before 11/1!
Trick or Treat! Excerpt from my new urban fantasy novel Vendetta set in my Deadly Curiosities world here http://bit.ly/1ZXCPVS Launches Dec. 29
More Trick or Treat goodies! New Blaine McFadden short story set in Velant Prison http://amzn.com/B0151YRCPA No Reprieve
Treats not Tricks! Excerpt from The Healer’s Choice http://www.darkoakpress.com/healer.html
Trick Or Treat excerpt from The Artifice Conspiracy http://www.darkoakpress.com/artifice.html
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin is the author of the upcoming novel Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016.
Other books include The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books.
Gail writes four series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures, The King’s Convicts series, and together with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. Her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Realms of Imagination, Heroes, With Great Power, and (co-authored with Larry N. Martin) Space, Contact Light, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.