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!