Saturday, November 15, 2008

Real Versus Imaginary

When I turned in the manuscript for Hooked on Murder my editor asked me if there was a bookstore in Tarzana that readers might think was the one in the book. I told her not to worry. There are two country clubs in Tarzana and it is where Brittany Spears came to shave her head, but there are no bookstores.

The other day a woman sent me an email and asked if I was going to post of photo of the charity afghan that appears in Hooked on Murder. I was sorry to disappoint her, but the afghan like the bookstore only exist in my imagination.

I began to think about Molly’s Tarzana versus the real deal. The street names are the same, but all the businesses are factitious. I took an adorable building I saw in Carmel and mentally moved it to Tarzana to become the Cottage Shoppe where lots of the action in Dead Men Don’t Crochet takes place. I do know exactly where it would be and am always a little disappointed when I see the lackluster building that is really in that spot.

I love the cafĂ© and cupcake place I created and only wish they really existed. I’d be a good customer for sure.

The other day my son and I went for a walk in the nearby mountains. We always park at the end of a residential street and then walk into the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy. Just before the street dead ends there is a driveway that hugs the curve of the mountain. In my Tarzana that driveway leads to the house where the murder in By Hook or Crook takes place. I have spent so much time imagining that house I expect to see it when I look down the long road. But there in no old two-story Spanish style house with a red tiled roof. The actual house is barely visible and not even on the same side of the driveway. And yet, in my mind I can see the dark wood floors and huge pots of mother-in-law tongue plants, the stairway to the second floor, and the bedroom with the victim sprawled in her bed.

I might change the house, but I would never touch the view we get from our walk. I couldn’t possibly better that in my imagination. Picture a valley ringed by mountains turning purple and gold as the sun slips behind them. Streets like red and white ribbons of light that cut through the areas of puff ball trees. All across the valley twinkling lights are coming on. Houses on the ridge below us, look like miniatures as does the car on the street in front of them.

I know the view well enough to know the tiny spot of blinding white lights belongs to the parking structure at Topanga Mall. And all the way across the valley and part way up the mountains on the other side, there is a line of orangish lights. They belong to the park in Porter Ranch where you get the same view I’m seeing but in reverse.

Behind us the dirt road and hillside melt into the low light and we hear the eerie cries of coyotes thinking about dinner. Time to go home.


Monica Ferris said...

It's interesting when an author uses a real place as a setting for his/her stories. Real places don't fit perfectly, so changes are brought in. And real places change, which might or might not suit the author's story. For example, in my books I say the Waterfront Cafe nearly sold out to a sushi bar until the owner came to his senses -- but in real Excelsior, there is a sushi bar. In my fictional Excelsior, the Waterfront Cafe has become a microbrewery called The Barleywine, a necessary thing for the book I'm currently writing. Sometimes my readers will visit Excelsior, pointing out the real places I name. What are they to do when they come looking for The Barleywine?

ellen said...

There is no reason an author should invent a town/city from whole cloth, when the world is full of interesting places. The author has better things to do with her imagination.

But slavish imitation of reality is no fun either, when you need a microbrewery and the Real Town does not have one.

There's always a middle way, and a bit of embroidery can usually improve reality.

Betty Hechtman said...

monica, Maybe someone will get an idea from your book and open a microbrewery and call it the Barley wine.

Ellen, I agree, I like books that feature real places.

It feels a little strange. The view of the mountains I was describing is now full of fire.

Linda O. Johnston said...

My Kendra Ballantyne series takes place in L.A., but some novels I've written are set in imaginary places. I find that, with Kendra's stories, I do make up some streets and other locations, and I also try to be careful about characters' names. As a lawyer, I'm especially aware of not wanting to insult anyone!

Betty Hechtman said...

Linda, I am always concerned about names, too. But I also figure that no matter what name I choose, there is probably someone somewhere who has the same one.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Absolutely true, Betty. I've even had people with the same names as my characters contact me now and then. But since I'm not always complimentary of the LAPD with the characters used in the Kendra books, I at least check to be sure no one in the department has the names I've chosen!

Camille Minichino said...

After 8 books in a real city, I got a little tired of having to check on every one way street and every stretch of bushes, so I created a fictional one for the 5 in the miniature mystery series.

I do miss "real" landmarks, but I've also enjoyed creating a new place.

Betty Hechtman said...

Camille, I can see how a fictitious city could have its advantages.