Specific, physical locations are often an important part of a story. Through detailed depictions of physical places an author can help the reader build a mental picture of a world and add a crucial sense of reality to a story. However, writers have chosen a variety of ways to portray these locations. Some places, especially large and famous cities, are replicated in realistic detail. Other times, the writer bases the location on a familiar, actual place but makes modifications, such as changing names and geography. As a general rule, authors seems to depict actual locations when dealing with larger cities and renamed, modified ones when dealing with smaller ones. This post will look at examples, as well as exceptions, of this.

Unsurprisingly, there are many, many novels set in New York. It may be the one city in America that no writer can truly claim because it has been visited in fiction over and over. Other places, however, are often associated in literary imagination with a few specific writers. The sprawl, glamor, and desperation of Los Angeles have been famously captured by crime writers Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald. The laureate of Northern California (its valleys and mountains and farms, at least) is probably John Steinbeck, who replicated the Salinas Valley of his youth in explicit detail in East of Eden. Detroit has been depicted in the varied works of Joyce Carroll Oates, Jeff Eugenides, and Elmore Leonard. Chicago associates itself with the likes of Carl Sandberg and Nelson Algren. New Orleans honored John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces by erecting a statue of its bumbling protagonist on Canal Street. Tennessee writer Peter Taylor’s fiction frequently compares and contrasts Nashville and Memphis. Even science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein saw fit to recreate the Kansas City of his boyhood with historic accuracy in Time Enough for Love and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Most mid-sized cities in American have produced at least one writer who has called it home and immortalized it, by name, in fiction. On rare occasions, mid-sized cities are fabricated by the author; Sinclair Lewis’s city of Zenith in the state of Winnemac is shown in many of his novels as the ultimate American mediocrity. A native of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis offended the natives of his town with the novel Main Street and thereafter tried to separate his setting more from the real world.

The desire to avoid naming (and possibly shaming) real people may be one reason why those who write about small towns often conceal them. Thomas Wolfe famously tried and failed to avoid offending the people of Asheville, North Carolina, when he disguised it in his autobiographical novels, first as Altamont and later as Libya Hill. William Faulkner transformed Oxford in LaFayette County, Mississippi into Jefferson of Yoknapatawpha and developed an elaborate mythology that was based on his hometown yet ultimately separate from it (Jefferson may have a courthouse square like Oxford, but it certainly has no Ole Miss). Sherwood Anderson turned Clyde, Ohio, into Winesberg. Many horror novels by Stephen King have transformed Bangor, Maine, into Derry. Occasionally, writers have chosen to openly animate real locations. John Gardner, who spent much of his life in upstate New York, explicitly set novels in Batavia and Binghamton, while Greg Iles’ southern thrillers depict the twin towns of Natchez, Mississippi, and Vidalia, Louisiana. On rare occasions, art imitates life. In his 1951 debut novel Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron fashions the town of Port Warwick as an amalgam of the small Tidewater Virginia, towns he grew up in. A half-century later, Port Warwick became a pre-designed mixed-use urban development near Newport News, Virginia. While unlike the novel’s Port Warwick, the new development still carries on the legacy of its fictional namesake.

Aside from the desire to avoid embarrassing the people of one’s hometown, there are other reasons for disguising smaller towns and not big cities. Everyone in America has heard of New York. Even the people who have not been there absorbed certain sights and names via television and movies. Cities like Detroit and New Orleans may not have achieved the same near-mythic element in shared imagination, but they are names that carry certain images and connotations that help frame the story for readers . The same cannot be said for many small towns. Everyone knows about New York City, far fewer people know about Batavia. Some authors also prefer the freedom to change existing places in ways that best suit the story. And, of course, many writers do not set their stories in specific locations at all. However, the various ways in which writers approach places in their fiction reveal an interesting pattern in American fiction, where larger cities carry weight in readers’ imaginations, smaller towns are renamed and rearranged with ease, and ultimately anything can be tweaked and changed to best serve the needs of the story.

-Scott Ondercin

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