For most writers, it’s not, “Write what you know,” but rather, “Write what you want to know.” I suspect few go into a project knowing everything, but by the time we type The End, the majority of us have done the required research and then some.

The focus of that research is often setting. I personally try very hard to make setting a character in my stories. I use real locations and target what’s unique, hoping to bring these sites alive for the reader.

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“A reclaimed oasis in the middle of Richmond’s heavy industry and hillside tank farms, Marina Bay boasted breathtaking views, unparalleled dog walking, and relative safety—at least by Richmond standards.”

 

Refineries“A loud rolling rumble, followed by an ear-splitting boom, shook the house. She hated thunder. She was never sure if it was Mother Nature acting up or the nearby oil refinery exploding.”

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Trains

“Marina Bay was a great place to live except for the trains. With only three roads into and out of the area, all avenues were blocked part of the day by slow-moving locomotives traveling between the Ports of Richmond and Oakland.”

 

 

 

Because my settings are near and dear, it was with a heavy heart I tasked myself with editing out the very real university in my first novel and replacing it with a school born of imagination. Why would I do such a thing? To avoid connecting the university, even tangentially, with the crime I write about in my book. It took almost two solid weeks to make the edits—twice as long as it took to edit the novel I currently have under contract.

 

Telegraph-Ave-Berkeley

“THEY DON’T CALL IT BERZERKLEY FOR NOTHING flashed a neon sign in the window of a used music store. She turned onto Telegraph Avenue and walked a gauntlet of street merchants, political flyers, and the homeless to Bancroft Way, the southern dividing line separating city from university, town from gown.”

 

SatherGATE

“She crossed to campus. Gone was the mind-numbing traffic. Gone, too, the scent of piss and car exhaust. In its place the sharp, clean tang of eucalyptus. She strolled through the center of the tree-lined plaza, watery light flickering through the pollarded London planes, creating soft shapes on the brick pavers.”

 

SproulHall

“She passed a couple sitting on the steps of Sproul Hall. They held hands, the girl’s head on the boy’s shoulder. Tiny, dwarfed by the huge building, they looked no different from the couples who’d sat on the steps of Sproul decades before, no different than she and Michael had looked.”

 

 

 

The point of this post is to raise awareness of the dangers of linking a tragic or violent fictional incident to a real-life setting—even if the connection is indirect, as it was in my novel. Apart from the editing required, which was onerous on a manuscript so clean it squeaked, I no longer have the privilege of sharing the setting I built my novel around, a place I know and love. This has weakened my story, made it less convincing, less rich and textured. Worst of all, it feels as though I’ve killed off a beloved and essential character.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Have you ever written about a real-life setting?
Are you concerned it could come back to haunt you?

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All gave some.
Some Gave all.

Remember and give thanks.

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