Author Guest Post: When No Town Becomes My Town

Today we have a new guest post by mystery writer Gary Corbin, author of The Mountain Man Mysteries series.

Currently, the series includes three books, with the latest one titled The Mountain Man’s Badge.

Gary Corbin authorEvery story needs a place. But sometimes a story needs its own place – as in, a place that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

The Lord of the Rings needed Middle Earth. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe needed Narnia.

Scott Turow, the great legal thriller writer, invented Kindle County for his “Presumed Innocent” and “Innocent” novels.

When and why

For The Mountain Man Mysteries, Lehigh Carter needed a small Oregon mountain town in which everyone presumably knows everyone’s business, but also with a docile populace indifferent to the corrupt, paternalistic politics and law enforcement.

While such places probably exist, it’s safe to say that a series featuring a litany of heinous crimes perpetrated by those at the top of the food chain would be tough to set in a real place. People might, you know, object to having their town being so characterized.

For larger cities, we don’t have that problem. Just as in real life, larger cities allow characters to blend in. People don’t take it quite as personally if a city council member (even the mayor) of, say, Los Angeles or Chicago is portrayed as corrupt or if the police chief is on the take.

But a town of 200? Try that, and you have 199 enemies. (There’s always one, right?)

How to build a fictional town

Building a town for a novel or series is fun. One of the great advantages for the novelist is that there are fewer constraints. In a real city, you don’t dare get a single detail wrong. Someone will find it and post a horrible review about what sort of idiot doesn’t know that there aren’t any Albertson’s in Portland, for example. (Ask me how I know.)

Still, there are some constraints. Here are the things a writer must consider when inventing a place:

  • Make it feel real. The highest compliment I’ve gotten about my Mountain Man Mysteries series is when one of my readers expressed shock that Mt. Hood County was a fictional place.
  • God is in the details. No, not the devil! And when creating a place, the novelist is God. Build the place with sufficient interesting detail that the reader can visualize it.
  • Make it a character. Your place can play a big role in your story. Not just coloring or constraining action, either – it can become an agent of action, an antagonist, or even an ally of your hero. Lehigh’s intimate knowledge of his rural county plays a big role in his ability to confound, and eventually vanquish, his enemies.
  • Keep it consistent. What and where are the key features of your fictional place? If the shopping center is in the east end of town in Chapter One of your first book, it needs to be there again in Chapter Twenty of book three. This is particularly important – and harder – for series.
  • Give yourself room to grow. Don’t spell it all out in your first story. Just as in real life, fictional towns evolve and grow. It’s also the way to have fun with it as a writer.

There’s more, but those are the most important parts. See for yourself if I’ve done it well by checking out my new book, The Mountain Man’s Badge, Book 3 of The Mountain Man Mysteries!

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