I love a book with a strong sense of place.
Poor plot or no plot, doesn’t matter as long as I am transported to somewhere I have never been. I often read with a map in my hand if the setting is real, as in Victoria Thompson series set in New York City in the late Victorian period.
My own works are usually set in real places: Cambridge, Massachusetts or Wilmington, Delaware in the 1890s, or a small Massachusetts town in the early 1800s, even the two historical sites where I work. I have just started novel #7 set in a fictional town on the Delaware River.
The advantage of using a real setting is that there are maps and all kinds of information out there. I know who actually built and lived in the houses my characters inhabit. I know what was going on in the town at the time the action of the story is taking place. Though the houses are real, I took the liberty of moving them to another location. I chose Dana Street because that is where the fare on the trolley line went from five cents to seven cents. I also have a large selection of secondary and tertiary characters.
The advantage of- a made up location is that no one can say you got it wrong. In one novel I read, the bus, which was one I took frequently, went up one street and turned left. Well, it doesn’t, you actually have to change at that intersection. Minor but annoying.
So I have to begin by inventing a whole town. My first problem is that the land I want for my town is actually marsh and hard to build on. So I have to set down some foundation of rock or my town will vanish. I have been wandering around for days wondering what is under my feet.
When I laid out my town of some 700 people, it divided itself into Delaware Street where the better sort live, the middle sort to the north and the poorer sort to the south, in the marsh. I can already feel the mosquitoes. Good thing there is a breeze off the river most days. I already know this is a port of sorts, since the Delaware River was the highway to Philadelphia in a time when roads were poor if they existed at all. Fishing in the river and farming on the dryer land to the west, sustain the town.
The town had to be named after the prominent families, the Cobbs, the Pleasants and the Mannings. Delaware is filled with place names that incorporate a landmark. Crossing, Gap, Corner, Inlet, Point or Cape. Even Hummock. So Cobbs Crossing was duly incorporated. Now I had a map of the town with a tavern on the western edge on the main road from New Castle to Delaware City, both real towns.
A tavern…great place to find a body of a stranger. But who and why? Cobbs Crossing is not on a well traveled or important road. Why would anyone be murdered there?
Let’s keep spinning and see where we are a year from now.
Pictures: New Castle County Courthouse, Geologic Map of New Castle County and Delaware City from the air.