There are many debates that go on amongst writers, editors, and other members of the publishing industry. One I keep coming across is the use of a fictional settings and real world settings. Now when I say fictional, I don’t mean a completely new world as in fantasy or science fiction. I’m talking about fictional cities and towns that don’t exist in our world. There are pros and cons to each, but I think that as far as horror goes, there are more benefits to using a setting of your own creating than a real life one.
There is an exception to the rule, though. I think that if you are basing on the events of your story on a real occurrence or history, the story benefits from the atmosphere and flavor of the place it actually occurred. I mean, a story based on events happening in South Boston or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are going to be looked at through the lens of the people who lived there. The story, the people, the mood all have a template you can take and make your own.
In that exception lies the reason I think that fictional settings are the way to go. Readers are more than likely to be discerning readers. If you write a story in New York City, you better have your facts straight and your details flawless, because there are enough readers that will be put off if you change a name of a street or add a completely new one. Occasionally, I will see Author’s Notes at the start of book that take place in real life settings that say something like, “Although this story takes place in [insert place], I have made slight changes to benefit the story.” Now, this is a literary CYA. And to me, both as a reader and a writer, I translate it as:
“Hi, I’m a writer that has a pretty decent story, but I know nothing about the setting I’m using and I couldn’t either take to the time to research the town or city, or I have something that doesn’t really exist that would fit in a logical place in the city, I had to use this real life setting, but now that I put this note in the front of the book, you can’t get mad at me, kthnxbai.”
You can avoid all of that and have a setting that is exactly what you want, amplifying the story you are going to tell. It is a tool that was used outside of horror. William Faulker’s Jefferson City is a classic example. You believe that place exists because it exists to the character. Also, those stories can’t exist outside of Jefferson City. You could put those stories in Oxford, MI that Jefferson City was based on. It doesn’t have all the elements that come from the writer and the story.
So lets take a story set in New York City. Does it need to be there? Is there anything directly connected to the plot that can only exist in New York? If not, why not make a city based on NYC, but with subtle, darker changes. Like Gotham City, you just need to make some changes to the base template city and you can create a place that everyone believes in and wants to visit time and time again.
What if it does though? You want to use the Empire State Building to be the setting of the climax, what do you do then? Well, it is the same thing as the city as a whole. Why do it have to be that exact building? Is it something about the history? Is it something that can only exist in the real Empire State Building? If not, give your mind–your story–the room to grow in a new place.
But possible more important than anything for you as writer to get out of created setting, is what your readers will get out of it. Not everyone is going to have traveled to the city you set it in. Some readers that don’t live in the place or have ever been their, can easily have stereotypes in their mind that will color the way they read the story. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it will be a different experience. If you have a created setting, there are no preconceptions, those that live in the city or country can read it and make the connection to the places they see. No one’s left out and they are all fulfilled with the setting.
So what is better, spend a little more time making a little unique corner of the world for your stories and having happy readers all around, or use a real setting and have the real possibility of dissatisfied readers in a myriad of ways?