Nothing makes the unreal (supernatural, paranormal or magical) more REAL than adding some reality to the mix. Bits and pieces of normal — even ordinary details — give the vampire outside the door or the ghost in the attic a context. Stephen King is a master at turning the mundane into the fantastic and terrifying. Christine, Pet Cemetery, Carrie and his other classics are super-scary because of the mix of normal and magical. Open up one of his books and you’ll notice tiny details that ring true to real life and give the extraordinary storyline a dash of real. This is a great way to invite the reader to believe the UN-real. The specificity of these details makes it work.
I admire science fiction and fantasy writers that are able to create coherent worlds from scratch. I usually start with a real place. I may add an interesting restaurant or even a particular building that suits the needs of my story, but the real elements in the geography have to be accurate. That’s why most of my stories take place in New York. It’s home so I know it best. Yes, I have used other settings but always places I’ve visited. I’m also careful and I often double check details to make sure I’ve nailed them.
Why? Because a mistake breaks the magical spell.
I love to “travel” in books and I know I’m not alone. Donna Leon’s mysteries are like short visits to Venice without the airfare and hotel bills. Tony Hillerman always made me want to visit my relatives in New Mexico. And when I’ve visited London, I’m always aware of landmarks from all those British mysteries I’ve consumed since I was 12. The real places make the fiction ring true.
When I read books set in New York, I’m acutely aware of the mistakes and missteps of the writers. It’s very easy to spot a native versus a non-New Yorker. I’m pretty sure that these writers have visited the city. It’s likely that they picked up a few nice details between Broadway shows, museums, Macy’s and Chinatown. The problems usually arise from the geography, socio-economic and historical observations they’ve “borrowed” from movies, TV shows and other books. I’m not accusing anyone of stealing descriptions of the city. It’s more likely that these images, as part of popular culture, override first-hand experiences.
The grim, crime-ridden New York of the 1970s lingers in imaginations, but the city of Taxi Driver (1976) is long gone. I know because I’ve lived here a long time. I’ve observed the changes and often wonder why so many new TV crime dramas set here seem to be written by writers that have never been on a subway.
Last week I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or throw my Kindle across the room. The writer set her mystery on an Island in Washington State and I was enjoying the sense of place and time — on the West Coast, today. But references to the New York back-story of two characters felt like it had been pieced together out of old movie clichés.
The characters, all graduates of the class of 1995, had to have been born in 1973/4/5 and yet one character grew up on the Lower East Side near the El Train (elevated subway). As I don’t remember ever seeing an El Train in Manhattan, I checked New York’s history and there’s a good reason. They were all pulled down in the 1950s! They remain in Woody Allen and Neil Simon movies but they’re set earlier or in Brooklyn.
A character raised in Upstate New York was described has having gotten her taste for theater by working as a waitress in the Jewish resorts that featured famous entertainers. Again, I think the writer was relying on Dirty Dancing — set in 1963. The heyday of the Borsht Belt with headliner comedians and singers was long over and the big hotels were closed by the time this character would be old enough to wait tables.
What’s the lesson here? I’m double-checking the REAL in my fiction, because readers like me with sniff out the false, fake or borrowed.