Welcome to My (Fictional) Town

Lea Wait, here.

I’ve written historical novels set in real places (Wiscasset, Maine; Charleston, South Carolina; Edinburgh, Scotland) and I’ve written contemporaries (my Shadows Antique Print mysteries) set in fictional places in Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Those fictional settings are ALMOST real. Some are closely based on real places. Like Shadows at the Fair, where the fair involved is almost the Rhinebeck Antiques Show in Duchess County, New York. Only, it’s not. I changed the location of the bathrooms and added a preview evening and … I re-named the show.  Maggie Summer teaches at Somerset County Community College in New Jersey, which doesn’t exist. But it MIGHT exist. Other counties in New Jersey have community colleges. And Maggie shops at malls that do exist, attended a real college, and drives on highways that anyone who knows New Jersey will recognize. (And avoid if possible.)

Fictional settings give me the freedom to put houses, roads, coffee shops, graveyards, hospitals – whatever my plot demands – wherever I want them to be. But these places can’t be jumbled together. They have to be arranged logically. They have to form a new entity. And once arranged, they can’t be scrambled. You can’t juggle a created universe.

My next Shadows book, Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding (spring, 2013,) takes place in Winslow, on Cape Cod. No, you won’t find it on a map. But to me Winslow is a real Cape community.

Right now I’m getting ready to start a new book. But before I write a word, I need to design the place where my characters will live. Settings are critically important to me. They frame my characters’ world. I need to see and feel and even smell them.

This time my town is on a river, close to the Maine coast. It’s a year ’round community, filled with old homes, but some people live in trailers, too. It has a small downtown area, with two churches and a Green; a library and an old inn. A diner and a (usually closed) restaurant. A small bookstore which also sells Maine t-shirts. An antiques mall. A co-op art gallery. An “antique” store that sells mostly junk. A stand where tourists buy lobster rolls and ice cream cones in the summer. A beauty parlor. A town wharf and fisherman’s co-op. There’s a sunken garden ladies of the local garden club created between the granite cellar stones of a tavern that burned down in 1873. Teens hang out there at night, and they’re not there to admire the flowers. If you drove through my town quickly, you’d want to snap a picture of this classic Maine community. If you’d grown up there, you’d see it differently.

I won’t use every building or business in town, or every character I know lives there, in my book. But their presence deepens my understanding of their world. 

I’m drawing a map, so I won’t mix up where my characters live, or which direction they’ll head when visiting friends. Or enemies. The map will hang in my study as long as I’m writing the book. I’ll get to know the streets and people of this town better than I do those of the town where I receive mail.

Because this town will be where I’ll be living for the next few months.

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One Response

  1. My process exactly, Lea. Except one time I lost the sketch I’d made of my character’s house plan. Usually I have my techie husband make a nice drawing of the layout and I keep the file, but this time, all I had was a hand-drawn sketch and it was gone. I had to move my character to another apartment!

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