Writing Made-up Settings

Anonymous asked: “Would it be okay to write a YA story in a setting that the I, the author, just made up? For example, a made up name of a city, the school there, etc. I tried researching a certain place I desired for my story but it is so complicated because I’ve never been there.”

Someone correct me if I’m wrong – but I’m pretty sure I’m not- but aren’t most stories set in fictional towns? Not necessarily cities or metropolises, but small “no-name” towns? That might not always be true for mysteries and thrillers, but generally in YA, or fantasy, or even a lot of times in literary fiction too, the towns are made-up. 

The first time I read a book about a real place that I had been to that was not Manhattan, I was shocked. I remember it to this day. I was 13 and I was reading a book by Mary Higgins Clark. She was writing about a town not too far over from my childhood home. She named all these local places, like pubs and parks and churches and even schools that I knew. I couldn’t believe it – I think I ran to show my mom. 

Even The Great Gatsby, it’s no secret where the story is set, but there isn’t actually a “West Egg” or an “East Egg.”  Or maybe there was at some point, but I was told those were fictional names for the places I’d been to out on the Long Island Sound. The Catcher in the Rye includes a made up Pencey Preparatory Academy that’s out in Pennsylvania, that’s not unlike other boarding schools that kids from the tri-state area go to. 

Most writers will generally make up the places where most of the action in their story happens, whether it’s a school, a street in a major city, a town, or in Faulkner’s case a county. These places become believable when you know generally where they’re located and they reflect other nearby places. For this reason, I honestly can’t imagine writing these kinds of little details for a place I haven’t been to. I’ve written stories about places I have never been to, but I do to some extent do research so at the very least, I make sure I can get away with writing a story that skips over the little things like that. 

When I’m focused on writing about a place, often I feel I need to know that place intimately. Though the actual version of it in my stories might be “fictional” – it’s always drawing from something real. It might be drawing from a bunch of real places and not just one specifically, but that’s part of the joy of fiction. You can make stuff up. (I say that with some cheekiness – while I ‘make stuff up’ mostly, I don’t. I fudge a few things I don’t know, but really, for the most part I often feel like I don’t need to. Usually, I write what I know, and sometimes it’s surprising how far that can take me.) 

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