Writing–Setting the Story

A CTA brown line train leaves Madison/Wabash s...
A CTA brown line train leaves Madison/Wabash station in the Chicago loop. Photographed from 41°52′58″N 87°37′34″W / °S °W / ; latd>90 (dms format) in latd latm lats longm longs looking south (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of my short stories take place in fictional places that only exist in my head. Some people notice that some of the small towns in my stories bear a striking resemblance to the small town I live in.

It’s true. I think my hometown is a great place to set a story. It’s got character and charm and personality. It looks sweet and innocent with a lurking darkside that just catches your eyes at the very edge of your line of sight. There are a lot of times that when I’m coming up with a story, a section of my small town pops right in there as the perfect place to set it.

The benefit of writing about a completely fictional place or one that I know very well is that I do know them so well. No one can tell me that I’m wrong. I don’t have to worry about people correcting me because I’ve either made everything up or I know everything so well. The details have to be good, of course, but I don’t have to worry about yanking people out of the story because I got something wrong.

Two of my novels are set in Chicago. Now, I spent a lot of time in the south suburbs about 10 years ago and I’ve been to Chicago several times, but I don’t KNOW Chicago. I don’t know the streets and the businesses and the people and the flow as well as I know my little town in the middle of nowhere. I can look on the map (and I’ve used Google maps A LOT) to get an idea of where things are so I can be technically correct about certain details and so I have an idea of where I’m at…literally…in a story.

But when it comes to the feel of a city, I have to actually walk the streets. I’ll have to experience the EL and the neighborhoods and the traffic for myself. As much as I’d like to gloss over these things, it’s these kind of details that can make or break a story. I can’t call an EL stop part of the Red Line when it’s actually a Brown Line stop (I have no idea how accurate this example even is). A mistake like that can totally wreck a story for someone.

Place is important. Stories don’t happen in a vacuum (unless for those in which they do). It’s important to get those little details right.

I guess this means that I’ll be spending a lot of time in Chicago if I want to get these stories right.

You know what

? I don’t mind.

4 thoughts on “Writing–Setting the Story

  1. I’m with you that the feel of a city has to be as accurate as possible so that, if someone who is from that city or knows that city will feel right at home within the confines of what’s going on around them, and when picturing a story, whatthe mind’s eye perceives is crucial.

    Though, I think that’s the case in movies, too. That scene is Rocky when he’s running all over Philly? He’s running in a big zig zag. Makes no logistical sense. Might not be the same thing as a Novak, but equally as off putting!

    1. The setting can make or break a story (or a movie). Fictional towns are so much easier because no one can challenge you on the specifics. I don’t want to make those kinds of mistakes when I’m writing about Chicago. I want to be as accurate as possible. Which is going to mean some serious, hands-on research. It’ll be a challenge for me for sure.

      1. I meant “novel” and not “Novak”. I’ve been ranting on the Philadelphia Union head coach, Peter Novak, Lately (former Chicago Fire, btw)

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