Fictional towns

(from a photograph by Mihail Ribkin on Unsplash)

I have been irritated recently by the insertion of fictional towns into landscapes I know and love. I have just read two crime stories set in Northumberland, my home county, and in both cases the crimes were set in completely fictitious towns. I kept trying to work out which towns were actually being described (they weren’t) and that distracted me from the stories. (See April reviews, the post immediately before this one.)

I realise that it’s perfectly possible that the same thing happens with novels set in e.g. Australia or US and that I’m simply unaware of the fact. Residents of those countries might share my annoyance and anguish.

It isn’t that fictional towns are always a no-no. I have enjoyed two entire series set in fictional towns – Porthkennack, which is supposedly in Cornwall, where a group of writers have set their historical tales and their modern romances, and Trowchester, a town created by Alex Beecroft for Trowchester Blues. In both cases the town itself is brought to life with a lot of detail and an obvious love of the well-imagined place. I had no objection to Starsky and Hutch operating in Bay City rather than anywhere real. There are plenty of fictional towns out there functioning happily in my imagination as well as that of their creator.

However, when a town is used simply as a place where there is a generic police station, a generic hospital and a generic town hall, etc. I feel annoyed. Why can’t the detectives, victims, etc. go to the perfectly good police stations, hospitals, and so on in towns that do exist? Somehow, it seems rude to ignore their existence. And how have these modern towns sprung up in countryside where there are sparse populations, little or no industry, and no apparent historical foundation? I suspect a lazy desire to avoid having to research the actual centres of population in the region. Porthkennack has the fishing industry and tourism to sustain it. Trowchester is in busy middle England. In neither case do people refer to other local towns, only to London or regional centres such as Birmingham. They ‘exist’ in their own right and could easily be true.

I could, to be kind, assume the authors who upset me were trying not to associate crime with real places. But plenty of crime and horror stories take place in well known locations, just as they do in real life. So do romances and adventures. Even urban fantasy and science fiction. Nobody ever seems to complain that their town should not be used as a setting.

So for anyone out there thinking of creating a fictional town: give it some life, some depth, some believable history, some detailed description, etc. Think about why it might be where it is. Think about its history and its name. Think about who lives there, what jobs they do, where they shop… You don’t have to go quite as far as Marquez did in his creation of A Hundred Years of Solitude, but you do have to get me to believe in the place.

A warning: I know most of Britain and a lot of Europe quite well, and am likely to be disappointed and to some extent shocked when a town turns up in the middle of nowhere for no good reason!

8 thoughts on “Fictional towns

  1. A good point, Jay! When I wrote the Camino series, half the fun was Googling places and finding out about them. The only thing I slightly shied away from was using actual hotel names, but the rest was all factually based. I too, enjoy reading stories with real locations especially when they’ve been well researched, I think it adds far more realism to a story.

  2. I agree! It can add immeasurably to the impact of a story! Just as for example the ambiance of Oxford adds to Lewis! I don’t think hotels are a problem unless you actually want to set the story in one in which case you still have to make it sound real whether it is or not. Hotels change all the time – apart from a few like the Savoy. So you can just place a likely hotel where you want it! But not way out in the wilds, of course!!

  3. The lack of detail on how people in these towns support themselves annoys me too – particularly in post-something-hideous or dystopian books or tv shows. Defiance was a b*gger for that – supposedly post-Apocalypse and living hand-to-mouth in a deserted wasteland full of monsters, yet they always had enough food and drink for thousands!

    • That’s exactly what got me thinking about the issue and about why it annoyed me. The two books I reviewed last month were set in Northumberland, my ‘native’ county. It’s an area that is sparsely populated for a reason. Other than the coastal villages and the industry along the Tyne, there is a great deal of unproductive moorland, suitable for sheep and a few people. How and why a couple of large towns (large enough for hospitals, big secondary schools, etc.) would have arrived was beyond me.

      • Hmm, maybe Star Trek transported them there? 😀 Seems odd to invent places like that – Northumberland has towns (admittedly not big but probably big enough to have a book set there) so why not use one of those? Or disguise it just enough that people know it’s Alnwick or wherever without actually saying so…

  4. Exactly. But all the towns in the area (Rothbury in one case) were mentioned in passing, so a great deal of my time was spent looking for where on earth they were – and even resorting to a map to see if I could work out what was going on! I thought for a while that one was Ashington, but it turned out not to be. Very frustrating to read! And yes, maybe the entire things were in some alternate universe and Star Trek was responsible! I read another in which the blurb (though not the author, to be fair) promised a Lake District setting but went with Carlisle and Penrith with the crime taking place north of Penrith. I do wish people would just try to look as if they’d done some research!

  5. I’d not really thought about it at all before. I mean, I love Midsomer Murders, a fictional county with many fictional villages and a fictional county town, but I know the real locations and they are so fully realised! it’s funny you should mention Bay City, as I am revisiting Starskey and Hutch right now. as a child, I’m sure I thought Bay City was real. but as for just background references, why not use a real town, I mean real towns and cities are used all the time with the information used incorrect and obvious the research not done (later series of Lewis and Endeavor spring to mind, although Morse turned my home town into a much smaller, quainter one 10 miles away!) In books (or fan fiction) unless you intend to entirely world build (Barchester, Wessex, etc) what is the point? I have used fictional towns twice in my writing, well one a hamlet really, and based it on 2 villages and gave it the name from two other villages as I didn’t want my online readers pinpointing the location to 4 miles from me and the other was partly as I knew nothing of Poland and didn’t want to offend people, and was knee deep in research into Russia and China at the time, and the location and name was not needed, just a rough area of it used to house refugees and drug addicts. I didn’t even give the town a name! But whether a real place or a made up one, I want research and detail to make it real!

    • I think your last sentence is probably the most important point. The authors who annoyed me clearly hadn’t done their research. There are good reasons why there are no big towns in the middle of Northumberland and they didn’t even try to make me believe otherwise! Villages are much easier to dot around the place – though the naming has to be logical and thought-through. You might balk at Viking-style names in Cornwall, for example, or Norman ones north of the Scottish border. I do like to be able to rely on the research behind fiction and even behind fantasy. A lack of it irritates me in books and on TV! It might not concern me as much in things written before the internet, but research is so easy now. In fact, as I’m sure you well know, it’s all too easy and pleasurable to wander down a research rabbit hole and spend weeks there!

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