Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Keeping It Real?

My friend Maru, visiting from Mexico City, and I went to Excelsior today. We had lunch at Antiquity Rose, then walked down to the little waterfront then up the main street of the town. At first glance, it looks unchanged. Haskell’s, the liquor store, is still there. The Dock, the movie theater is there – but what’s this? The little row of storefronts that faced the lake across a parking lot, their backs against the movie theater, are all gone. And as we walked up Water Street, other, smaller, changes appeared. Some of the little shops have changed hands. There’s a dentist’s office now, on the same street as Antiquity Rose (which has been painted a new color). The tiny jewelry store is still there, and Leipold’s, and Cynthia Rae’s clothing store. And so on. So some things remain, while others are gone. The buildings are the same, but the signs are different. Small changes, but changes. This is not the first time I have noticed that the town is moving along.

The question was, do I reflect all these changes? Some of them? None of them? My readers like visiting Excelsior, it has become as familiar as any of the human characters. One of the pleasures of using a real town is that I didn’t have to invent streets and shops. One of the dangers is that I can’t – or won’t – keep up with the changes.

The question of absolute accuracy was answered some while back, when I disallowed the sushi bar. I mentioned in one book that someone had bought the Waterfront Cafe to make a sushi bar of it, but in the book, the plan failed. Then in a later book, I turned the Waterfront Cafe into a micro brewery, a major change that was totally fictional. But that meant that when the real Excelsior turned the old hardware store into an Irish pub, I couldn’t allow that, either, as it would be too competitive with the Barleywine micro brewery. So I’ve already made some changes to the real town.

It’s sort of the same when I use people I know – with their permission, of course – in a book. I always have to make some changes in their real person for purposes of plot, but at what point do they become real-with-minor-changes and where are they more inspired-by? (You’ve seen movies “based on a real event” or “inspired by the story of” and if you know the real event you know how ephemeral these inspirations can be.)

Those of you with this dilemma, how are you handling it?


Linda O. Johnston said...

I try not to put things into my books in which people might think I'm referring to them, Monica. I add fictional locales within my actual locations, and I even contact places like the LAPD and LA Animal Services to make sure they don't have staff members with the names I put in my stories!

Julie said...

Like Linda, I avoid using anything too true to life, though I have to admit that I've used both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a certain theme park in Southern California which shall remain nameless. I tell audiences when I speak that the fact that it's fiction means you get to make it up, and that's a good thing, if you want to avoid some annoying types of legal liability. There's always that fine line between absolute accuracy and being sued by someone who takes exception to the way he or she is portrayed. I guess I try to keep the feel of the location without getting too close to reality, and just make the people up out of whole cloth. The disclaimer, "No persons living or dead," just isn't enough protection if you use a real person.

Christine Thresh said...

I've thought it might be fun to visit Excelsior one day. I have looked it up on Google maps and even used the "street views." I've found Trinity Episcopal and other places that appear in your books. I've had fun with that.
I think, as a reader, that if you are going to come up with a new place you should just add a new imaginary street for its location and not change an existing place.
I've used Google to try to locate Betsy's store and found it was a residential neighborhood. That's fine -- her building is imaginary.
Another thing -- I've tried to figure out the layout and window placement of Betsy's apartment. You could have a contest to see which reader comes up with the right plan.

Betty Hechtman said...

I write about a real place and use a mixture of real and made up places.