This is home: the scratch of dewy grass, barely alive after the heat of summer, still sharp and squelching from morning and evening sprinkler sessions. Roads and hills rise and fall like unsteady breaths. In Columbia, Missouri, a short drive from the Missouri River, the short downtown strip of Broadway is dissected by stoplights, which the college students love to jaywalk after a cheap pitcher at one of several storied sports bars. Faurot Field, the football stadium, is typically holy ground this time of year, though lately the team’s struggled to fill seats. There’s a steakhouse gem in a strip mall and an indie bakery stuffed inside the arthouse cinema. This is home, my indefinable home, one of those mid-size Midwestern towns not always at ease with its own identity.
But wait. What if this were home: A main street called Littleton rather than Broadway. An indie bakery hidden not inside a theater but, perhaps, inside a museum. Or, consider this: Columbia underwent a seismic controversy over race on the University of Missouri campus in 2015, but what if, instead, a debate around identity had sparked in 2020, during the re-election campaign of Donald Trump?
I wouldn’t be writing about Columbia, no. Not the real one, anyway. But it’d be something like Columbia – a fictionalized version tweaked to fit a different world, one tailor-made for a novel.
This is the conundrum I faced when I started revising my first book, a draft I’m still rewriting, recreating, and rethinking every day. I originally started by placing my characters in San Antonio, a city I’d visited once and considered a perfect fit for the novel’s mood. But as I pushed through the first several thousand words, I saw the cracks in what I knew. There was no way I could build a realistic world around a place I’d only traversed as a one-time tourist. The resulting product would be inauthentic or, worse, offensive to true San Antonians.
I trashed the setting and uprooted my characters to my hometown: Columbia, Missouri. Except I was soon presented with another problem. The magical realism of my book, and the nefarious secrets hidden in the setting’s restaurants and small businesses, didn’t seem accurate to my true vision of Columbia. I didn’t want readers thinking I looked upon my birthplace with derision or despair. True, I have critiques of the college town I call home, but, in the context of the book, they came out more scathing than soul-searching.
Finally, it was time for Plan C: A fictional setting. I’d create a college town in Missouri, but one with details that differed from Columbia. I’d draw from memories and beloved childhood landmarks to make this place authentic to the area, but the feel of the town and its distinguishing features would be all their own.
As straightforward as it might seem, fictionalizing is a messy business. You start with something real, then infuse it with the un-real, but leave behind enough bits of the real to convince readers you’re as close to real as the un-real gets. Still with me?
The process only gets more complicated when you fictionalize something as raw and pure as your own hometown. Your family and friends might still live there. You have memories that go bone-deep. That place is as much a part of you as your own fingers skimming the keyboard.
So why, when choosing a setting for short stories and novels, do many authors create a fictional version of where they grew up? What’s the appeal? And once you get started, how do you do it right?
Frustrated by these questions, and wondering what I’m (almost definitely) doing wrong, I sought out several authors who’ve found success fictionalizing their birthplaces. They shared their wisdom and advice, and we laughed over common misconceptions and mistakes. There’s no perfect way to do this, and you’d be wrong if you thought fictionalizing were easy. But with a few smart do’s and don’ts, you’ll feel a lot steadier as you step forward on a similar quest.
DO: Ask yourself why.
Many writers love seasoning their manuscripts with tastes of home. But home means something different to everyone, including your characters. Before you slide a creative spin on your hometown into your novel, ask yourself why that’s the best fit. Are you searching for more creative rein or trying to avoid readers’ preconceptions? Would your story make more sense in a world most audiences can visualize – for instance, the streets of downtown Manhattan – or someplace that’ll require much deeper detail? Listen to your gut as you make this choice, and take my experience as an example: You’re allowed to change your mind.
Soniah Kamal, author of Unmarriageable, a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in her birth country of Pakistan, recommends one good reason to choose fictionalization: You don’t have to sweat the small stuff. If you’re writing about a hometown you haven’t visited in a while, you’d hate to set the story around a restaurant that closed five years ago. A fictional town gives you the freedom to use those childhood influences without adhering to every minor historical detail.
DON’T: Assume fictionalizing is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Sure, you get to pick where the coffee shops and stop signs go. But that doesn’t mean you have a license to create entirely new rules for where your characters live. Even in science fiction or fantasy, there are real-world considerations to respect.
Consider my made-up Missouri town. If I liked, I could infest it with unicorns. That’s the beauty of fiction. But it’s in Missouri, so those unicorns better be able to survive in high humidity, and on a diet of soybeans and corn. You’ll have to make similar choices with any story based – even loosely! – on reality. Your readers will go along with your larger creative choices if you can establish, first, that you know the region you’re writing about.
DO: Start with your most visceral memories.
When Cynthia Swanson sat down to pen her latest novel, The Glass Forest, she envisioned a specific spot where her town would reside. She grew up in Peekskill, New York, and The Glass Forest’s setting – fictional Stonekill, New York – needed to look different but evoke the region’s sights and sounds. To begin, she tapped her most vivid childhood memories: the smell of the Hudson River; the sound of trains rolling along the tracks at night; the choke of woods that swallowed winding roads. She knew these details were authentic to the area, and Peekskill residents would recognize her subtle nods. But she left enough unsaid that she could still develop a new town with its own myths and legends.
When developing your landscape, try something similar: Ask yourself what you remember most about home. Take a page from your kindergarten exercises, and check off the five senses. What did you eat most often at your parents’ table? Did the stench wafting from a nearby hog farm force you to drive by with your nose plugged? What did the trees look like in the middle of winter? Could you hear wind whistling through the canyons while you tried to fall asleep?
You won’t want to use every memory, as some will only be applicable to you and not to the region itself. But the ones you feel are universal? Those are your keepers.
DON’T: Rely entirely on those memories.
Swanson says she started the writing process by acting on instincts and visceral memories. She didn’t even have a chance to go home to Peekskill for additional research until she’d already sold her manuscript to Simon & Schuster. But when she did go home, she knew she had some double-checking to do. She drove to the exact place where she pictured Stonekill could stand, and there, she scanned her surroundings to ensure everything matched what she’d put on the page.
Even in fiction, this sort of research is essential. Swanson cross-referenced her story with first-hand testimony, old photos, and historical accounts of the Peekskill area. You might think you know the place where you grew up, but more likely than not, there are details you’ve forgotten, events you’ve overlooked, and context that can hugely alter the interpretation of your manuscript.
DO: Choose your name wisely.
In the fraught early drafting process, it might be tempting to slap a name on your town and call it a night. But especially in fiction – where names like Hogwarts and Metropolis are immortalized – you want something that stands out (and, if you’re ambitious, might look good on a sign at Universal Studios). Still, the name must make sense to your hometown’s region.
Take Missouri, for example. We’re notorious name-copiers. In the Show-Me State, there’s a Paris, a Versailles, a California, a Carthage, a Carthage, a Breckenridge, a Buffalo, an Albany, an Amsterdam, and even a Beverly Hills. So, if I were to name my book’s setting something like Santorini, Missouri, well…it might sound a little ridiculous, but it wouldn’t be totally without precedence.
Swanson made a similar choice when she named her setting Stonekill. “Kill” is derived from the Dutch word for “creek” or “water channel,” and many of the surrounding towns share the name, including Swanson’s hometown of Peekskill and the nearby Fishkill, New York. She liked the creepy sound of Stonekill, but the name also fit the history of the area. Thus, it was a natural choice.
Komal also spent hours narrowing down her city’s name in Unmarriageable. Although the full backstory of Dilipabad, one of the book’s main settings, didn’t survive the revision process, she believes the research she put into the title was meaningful regardless. She wanted something that invoked post-colonialism, one of the major themes of Unmarriageable. By giving Dilipabad a name that wasn’t British – and therefore not stamped by British rule – she could signal the importance of reclaimed identity in countries such as Pakistan. Here, as in most stories, the name is not just a name. It’s a symbol.
DON’T: Play with replicas.
Stephen Markley, author of last year’s Ohio, understands better than most the temptation to funnel personal experiences and relationships directly into your fiction. “It’s something that sort of burns within every creative person,” he says. “To offer an explanation not only to readers but to themselves about what they experienced.” Ohio takes place in New Canaan, Ohio, a town loosely based on the cities where Markley spent his youth. And the book’s dark subject matter – involving the opioid epidemic, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the Great Recession – is heavily inspired by the death and destruction Markley witnessed during his childhood in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
Still, he says he needed time to acquire an appropriate amount of distance. He’d been trying to write a version of Ohio ever since high school, but he struggled not to directly, as he puts it, “render one-to-one people you know or situations you experienced within the context of the novel.” Reality, he explains, tends to be much weirder than fiction. That isn’t to say auto-fiction can’t work. But when you’re creating a fictional place, the parallels you draw must be carefully chosen. You must have the distance and maturity to know what to say about them.
DO: Draw a map.
If you’ve got an artist’s hand, this can be a blast. For those of us with handwriting like 8-year-olds, it’s a little less fun.
Either way, this is your chance to make your world seem real. You can go by instincts for the first 50 pages, but once your city starts to take shape, you’ll need to abide by its rules. You can’t tell readers the gas station is at the corner of Park and 7th when you told them 30 pages ago it was on Cherry and 9th. Even if you steal landmarks from your hometown, you’ll need to know where they go within the context of a new world.
Markley started with the basic geography of his hometown, then went back and made a map. Komal built a city around a bazaar, then went back and – you guessed it – made a map. Sooner or later, you’ll need to know where things are.
The joy is, you get to choose what the map looks like and how to make it. Some authors love open-source map generators that exist as downloadable software online. Those more artistic than I am might make a Narnia-inspired watercolor. Me, I get by with a few pencil scratches in a journal, with the occasional use of a protractor, ruler, and compass. Just make sure you invest in high-quality erasers before you get started.
DON’T: Think your readers won’t recognize what you’re doing – and react.
Feedback, especially from folks still dwelling in your hometown, will run the gamut. Some readers will immediately lay claim to the setting of your novel; they’ll swear they know exactly where it is you’ve broken the ground for your book. Others might take offense to the critiques or praises you bestow upon the region. Inevitably, someone will complain about what you got wrong.
Your readers will take enormous pride in what they recognize as home. Respect this to the best of your ability, but prepare yourself for a difficult lesson: You can’t make everyone happy – even under the guise of fiction. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth of where you came from, even if that truth is emotionally or politically fraught. Give your setting the context it needs and deserves, but don’t shudder away from creative leaps because you fear reader reactions. If the story resonates, then you did your job.
“It’s important for writers to keep their bravery about them and really forge ahead on those first drafts and really not panic at all the panic,” Markley says. Choose what is best for your characters while honoring the reality of the place that raised you. Once you’ve found balance on that shaky ground between fiction and reality, your story will have its chance to soar.
—Lauren Puckett is a magazine editor, freelance journalist, and fiction writer born and raised in the Midwest. Her work appears in publications including Literary Hub, Bustle, Apartment Therapy, The Rumpus and 5280 Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @laurpuckett.