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It’s FICTION for Heavens’ Sake!

Full disclosure: I am writing this post for myself. I may not publish it (thus rendering the disclosure unnecessary; the irony is not lost on me). I am pondering my novel and I feel the need to talk about it. Of course, this is dangerous. Sometimes when you talk too much about a thing you no longer need to write it. Well, I’m not going to disclose the story. But I think if I talk about some problems I’m having WITH the story, I can come to some conclusions and/or make decisions. Here goes.

The fact is, my novel has come to something of a standstill. I must work on the plot, obviously. But I have some other questions first.

Ooh, as soon as I wrote that, I could hear a snotty voice chime in with, “Maybe you need to work on your CHARACTERS and let the plot come from THEM!” Yes, there is always someone to tell you how to write. I was about to say, “Thank you for your (quite useless) input,” but, in fact, I am not the least bit grateful (and my characters are actually pretty good, if I do say so).

Enough of this digression. I want to talk about setting. I like a small town setting. A village, in fact, although “village” has such a Middle Age sound (as in the Middle Ages, 1400-1600, not middle-aged like me. Sheesh!). I think of villagers chasing the monster to the old windmill or warning foreigners not to visit the Count that lives in the castle on the hill. But again, I digress.

I am talking about villages like Herkimer, NY, where I live now, or Norwood, NY, where I used to live. Many of your well-loved novels have memorable settings: Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, St. Mary’s Mead in the Miss Marple tales. I think it is time upstate New York had a memorable setting in a book.

Upstate New York, for the uninitiated, includes any part of New York state that is not New York City. Have you ever looked at a map of New York State? It is not a small state. The true crime shows I so delight in will occasionally cover a case that takes place in “a small town in Upstate New York.” Steven and I yell, “Where? What town?” I wonder if residents of other states feel the same way. Still, I’ve never heard anyone say anything like, “a town in Louisiana other than New Orleans,” as if that were the only point of reference. Oh dear, another digression.

Indignation aside, I thought I would place my novel in a specific spot in the state and fill it with background, atmosphere and, you know, setting. For this novel, I chose the Mohawk Valley.

And I’m running into problems. First I made up a big old house (as in over a hundred years old, not as in “big ol’ house”) with a large yard, a summerhouse and a stream nearby. A murder took place in the summerhouse and I wanted the stream to help the murderer dispose of evidence. I thought I might throw in a thunderstorm with torrential rain for good measure. This is an atmospheric murder mystery, not a police procedural.

So far so good. I saw some other ways to use both the summerhouse and the stream to further the main plot and add a couple of subplots. I started making notes.

And immediately began to second guess myself. Would this novel actually take place in Herkimer? There is a stream in Herkimer and any number of large, historic-looking mansions. I don’t know of any that are in close proximity to each other, but does that matter? Couldn’t I just pick a spot on the stream and pretend the house is there? For that matter, couldn’t I pretend the right spot is there? In short, how much could I get away with?

According to some sources, not much. If you make a street run north/south when it really runs east/west, these sources say, your reader will lose all confidence in you, reject your entire novel and all your hard work will be for naught. I think for some readers this is quite true. If you are not meticulous in your research and correct in every small detail which can be verified as fact, they will point the finger of shame at you and refuse to believe any of your fiction.

I can understand that point of view. I know how it is when watching television or a movie and it’s something I happen to know about, and they completely screw it up. You know, like the school play where they’re still blocking at dress rehearsal? And you really don’t expect that sort of thing in a book. Personally I am completely disgusted with historical novelists who play fast and loose with the facts, unless that’s kind of the point. For example, many time travel stories have our heroes helping history along. Or the “it COULD have been like this” story such as Ken Follett’s excellent Eye of the Needle.

But that is not the sort of thing I’m talking about, and I’m no Ken Follett.

Another school of thought says to go ahead and make everything up: it’s FICTION, for heavens’ sake. If your characters and plot are compelling enough, your reader will go along for the ride, even down a street that could not possibly exist.

I wondered if I should completely make up a town. Then I could decide if a street ran east to west and where the mansion was. I had a couple of choices in this direction. There’s the “thinly disguised” option. I could take the name of a Revolutionary War general who didn’t have a town named after him. Or a Native American tribe. Or a European city. But it would “really” be Herkimer. Or Mohawk. Or Ilion. Only with the creek behaving as needed and the historic mansions where I wanted them.

The other way I thought of was to place a made-up town directly in between, say, Herkimer and Mohawk. Anyone familiar with the area would know there is no such place or even any room for one. It would be like another dimension. A wrinkle in space and time. Yes, one of those suspension of disbelief things.

Well, for heavens’ sake isn’t all fiction an exercise in the suspension of disbelief? Am I not making it all up anyways? I think I’m right back where I started.

What I did was I just started writing, figuring these decisions would work themselves out as I went. That has not happened yet and I feel increasingly unable to go on until I decide these things.

I think my best bet is to just decide. And I’m going to decide on the easiest course for me. I say the novel takes place in Herkimer, and I’m just going to move things around as I see fit. I’ll put a building here, a creek there, and my climactic scene… ah ha! You didn’t think I was actually going to give away a plot point, did you? This is not cheesy movie write-up with a spoiler alert! You’ll just have to read the book.

As soon as I finish writing it.

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