When you’re reading fiction, how important is the setting? Does the town or city where the story happens become one of the characters, or is it just background for the story?
A sense of place is very important to me as a reader. If I know the area, I enjoy seeing someone else’s take on it. Harlan Coben writes about Essex County, New Jersey, an area I know well. When I read his books, I can picture exactly where his characters live and work. His mention of streets and specific locations add color and depth to the story for me. It’s the same with works by Philip Roth, a totally different kind of a writer, but also from Essex County who made me see the Newark he experienced as a boy. That Goodbye Columbus is based on a section of South Orange near where we lived makes me want to read the book again.
A Year in Provence inspired me, and thousands of others, to spend a vacation there. Children’s books by E.B. White are part of the reason my husband and I spent a lot of time on the coast of Maine. When I read Michelle Obama’s memoir I got a real sense of Chicago’s south side. We’ve a family wedding in Chicago next May and while we’re there, I’m planning on a trip to both the south side and Lincoln Park. Knowing a bit about the area, I want to know more.
Locations are important as a writer. Not only do they add another layer to the story, they also ground it. My first four published novels take place in New Jersey where I was living when I was writing them. Three of the books are set in Maplewood, the suburban town where my husband and I raised our children. Suddenly Lily takes place in Jersey City where I worked. Although it's easier to write about a town or city that I know, because they are real places, I had to be accurate. Sometimes, in order to make sure, I would go back to Maplewood to check out street locations or the addresses of stores or restaurants. If a writer gets it wrong, the contract between the reader and the author is broken and the reader stops believing in the story.
I’m sure we’ve all read books where the writer makes a mistake and we, as a reader, spot it. Even if it’s minor, like calling a college a university or misnaming a street, when we come upon the error it takes us out of the story and makes us question the writer’s whole premise.
My work in progress takes place on the Upper West Side where I now live, and the North Fork of Long Island. When I wrote the chapters about the North Fork I hadn’t been there in fifty years. But I’d read articles about the area, especially food and wine columns since there are now so many vineyards there. I was sure I knew what it was like. I’d been to the Hamptons, aka the South Fork, numerous times. How different could the two areas be? I pictured the North Fork like the Hamptons with fewer cars. The traffic in the Hamptons, in case you haven’t heard, is horrific.
My husband and I made a quick trip to the North Fork in July to check it out while visiting the Hamptons. We made another trip there last week. For the record, it is nothing like the Hamptons. The differences are more than just the number of cars on the road. For one thing, there are the vineyards in nearly every town. For another, unlike the Hamptons where you know the ocean is close, but usually can’t see it, on the North Fork, the sound and the bay seem just an “9 iron shot, away,” to quote my husband. As you drive on the main highway if you can't see water, hang a right or a left, go about a block and you’ll bump into the sound or the bay. It’s amazing. And yes, I’ve fallen in love with the area, but that’s another story.
I’d already finished my first draft of my heroine Maggie’s first glimpse of the North Fork and Cutchogue, the town where she’s thinking of buying a house. After my first trip, when I realized it wasn’t another version of the Hamptons, I thought of making up a name for the town where Maggie is looking. Now, fresh off my second trip, I think not. My Cutchogue, or whatever I name the town, doesn’t belong on the North Fork. There is no mention of vineyards or frequent glimpses of the water or the fact that the area is still a rag tag kind of a place that hasn’t been completely discovered. My town, the Cutchogue in my first draft, sounds like the Hamptons without the traffic.
My character Maggie would never buy in the Hamptons and probably can’t afford it anyway. But she can afford the North Fork and knowing her, she’d love it. So my job is cut out for me. I have to rewrite the Cutchogue chapters. Even if I don’t name the town she’s looking at Cutchogue, it has to have the feel of the North Fork or I’ll be cheating myself and the reader and breaking my contract with them.