Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Location, location, location! (part deux)

by Rick Blechta

My post last week was a riff off one Aline had published the day before.

The importance of setting is indisputable. Every story is set someplace. If it’s a made-up land, then the writer is free to indulge themselves to the max, but what they write must firmly set their location in readers’ minds. The same is true if a writer is using actual locations — or portions thereof. Job #1 remains the same whether you’re utilizing pure fantasy or reality.

There is a large difference, though, when reality is used, either partially or completely: the writer should expect mail, good and bad. Anyone who knows that location well enough will certainly feel the urge to correct errors — and they may act on it. “There’s no bar on that street corner!” “That’s a one-way street and you have a car going the wrong way!” The answer to the first quote might well be that the writer needed a bar to be on that street corner for plot purposes so that’s what was done. Tough boogies. The answer to the second quote might be that the author boobed on the research. If one is using actual places for setting, it is critical that errors are kept to the bare minimum. Much can be gotten away with if the setting is not known to many, but get something wrong in Times Square and you risk being flooded with irate comments. Of course that would mean the book is selling well, which would make responding to irate comments much more enjoyable.

Which brings me to my own experiences. As I mentioned in last week’s post, I used the living room and garden of a good friend’s home in Scotland for the climax of When Hell Freezes Over. I didn’t think of asking if this was okay with him. I described the location of the house pretty specifically (it was critical to the plot). Only later did it dawn on me: “What if this book becomes a bestseller, a classic if you will, and people start showing up on my friend’s doorstep?” Don’t laugh. It has happened. (And I should be so lucky to write a classic thriller…)

Since that time, if I’m using real places for setting, I weigh my considerations more carefully. Two of my novels, The Fallen One, and its sequel, Roses for a Diva have my protagonist living in a large apartment block in downtown Toronto. It is easily identifiable. To my mind, that’s not an issue. It has concierges at the entrances. However, I would never use a specific apartment number. A private person does not need to dragged into my scribblings.

I always try to use real places for setting. It helps me to have a fixed image (plus reference photos) in my mind as I write. But now I’m more circumspect in being too specific (or shall I say 100% accurate if I’m using a private individual’s residence or a small business. If I set something in a public space, I consider that fair game.

Inside DD’s Diner in Ossining, NY. I’ve sat at this table!
To finish off about locations, I recently watched the second series of the Netflix production, Jessica Jones which is shot in and around New York City. The final episode used two locations with which I am very familiar. One is a diner in Ossining, NY that my mother-in-law really likes and we’ve eaten there frequently over the past two years. While watching, I’m thinking, That looks like Route 9 in Ossining. As the camera moved around I thought, That’s gotta be DD’s. A minute or two later my guess was confirmed when Jessica escaped from the place (after ripping out a table top and throwing it at two cops. Funny thing was, the signage out front was changed for the shoot, and unless one knows the specific area, you wouldn’t be able to find it. (I wonder if the owner’s didn’t want the notoriety.)

The climax in that episode, though, was the real kicker for me, It takes place at Playland, an amusement park in Rye, NY and is fully identified in the episode (the title of which is “Playland”). What’s really incredible is the climactic action takes place on the park’s Ferris wheel, which my future wife and I rode moments before she told me she loved me — and the location of that event appeared in one of the final scenes in the movie Big.

How’s that for locations with real impact — well, for me at least.


Sybil Johnson said...

One of the things my husband I like to do, whenever there's a beach scene in a TV show set in the L.A. area, is to guess which beach they filmed it at. We can generally tell.

One of the reasons I set my books in a fictional town because I don't want people complaining about adding a restaurant or something. I also think it's fun to create your own town.

Rick Blechta said...

Toronto has a pretty vibrant movie industry and a lot of them are American productions. Whenever we see one of these, we try to figure out where they shot various scenes. Sometimes it's surprisingly difficult to tell.

Sybil Johnson said...

I can imagine. Beaches tend to be a little easier. The piers are different or the curve of the coastline.