In my new book, 8 Souls, the story of Chessie and David is set in Villisca, Iowa, which is a real-life place. In fact, it’s even a bit infamous, as the site of eight unsolved axe murders that took place in June 1912. While writing the story, I couldn’t help but compare what it’s like to write about places that exist versus places that are purely fictional. I’ve written about both real-life locales and made-up towns and I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but they are different beasts to tackle and each has its pros and cons.
For 8 Souls, the town of Villisca is a huge part of the backstory to the book’s modern-day paranormal tale, so it was clear from the start I would be writing about the real-life town. However, the Villisca of 8 Souls is not identical to the real Villisca. The names of businesses in 8 Souls—Dotty’s Market, the Rolling Stone Café, the Higgins Hardware Store—are products of my imagination. And in real life, the Moore house, which is the site of the 1912 axe murders, is well-maintained as a historical and paranormal site; however, in 8 Souls the house is abandoned. (Both are super creepy though!)
A disadvantage to writing about real-life places is that it can be tricky to balance true-to-life aspects of the town with your own fictional needs. However, there is a huge pro to writing about a place that already exists—it’s a guide map to the setting, with several pieces of good world-building information, such as the size, the landscape, the layout, the types of businesses and industries in the area. A book set in a real place also gives readers the ability to step into the characters’ world, for real. (Just ask the good people of Forks, Washington!)
So how about fictional locales? A definite con is that building up a nonexistent setting from nothing but the grey matter between your ears can be a lengthy process. It sometimes takes a while to not only visualize a fictional place, but to feel it, to know it—to make it real. On the flip side, you have complete freedom of imagination. You’re free to visualize it any way you’d like, without worrying about accuracy, and there are no real-life residents to upset.
How about you? What are your favorite types of places to write or read about? Do you favor spots that can be found on Google Maps, or those found only in the mental map of an imaginative mind?