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Mile 19: Locations

As you’re writing your novel, you’ve already come to realize something: it’s got to take place somewhere. The question is — where?

There are really two options available to you as you pick the location(s) for your novel.

First, and this is the most challenging, write about a real place. For those of us who write Westerns, there are the go-to towns: Tombstone, Denver, Dodge City, Oatman, Deadwood, Durango and obviously many more. The great part about writing about these places is that they instantly conjure up images in most readers’ minds. The scary part about writing about these places is that they instantly conjure up images in most readers’ minds.

If you’re going to write about them, you need to research them. In many cases, your readers will know as much or, as I have learned, quite a bit more about the locations you’re using. If you say the sheriff’s office is on the north side of the street, next to the bank, it dang well better be on the north side of the street, next to the bank.

Obviously, if you’re writing a novel, it’s fiction, so you can make up anything you want, about any place and any time you want. But the thing is, when you’re writing a novel, you’re taking the reader on a journey. You’re asking them to buy into your characters and your story — and your locations. Try not to give them any reason to step back from the willing suspension of disbelief they have generously granted you. Messing up readily available factual information on a location is the second fastest way to do that.

NOTE: The fastest way is to make a mistake about weapons. Place a weapon in your story two years before it was actually manufactured, and you’ll have social media abuzz. Describe a weapon using a caliber it wasn’t available in and start checking your inbox for “gotcha” emails.

The other way to go is to simply make up your location. My first three Westerns (“Coyote Courage,” “Coyote Creek” and “Coyote Canyon”) were all set in the fictional town of Dry Springs. I got to put the sheriff’s office wherever I wanted, same with everything else. Funny thing, about half way through the second book, the town did become real to me, and it remains so today.

As the story grew into three books, I did have to make sure I was consistent throughout, but for that I used a little trick I learned from a friend. I drew a map of Dry Springs. As I mentioned something descriptive about the town in one of the books, I checked it against the map, or added it to the map. It worked wonders.

A last note on locations. You can most certainly use a hybrid of the two options. Maybe set your story in a fictional location, allowing you maximum flexibility as you create your story and the characters, but blend in some true-to-life locations. I try to do this as often as possible — drop in a period-accurate historical fact, or have my characters visit a real-life location. It lends credibility to the story, and I think it makes it easier for the reader to keep rolling along with you.

I wish you good writing, and if you have a question or something you’d like to share, send me an email at [email protected].

Thank you, enjoy and keep writing!

2 Comments on “Mile 19: Locations

Ken Farmer
October 9, 2018 at 7:52 am

Excellent stuff, Scott. I do the same. My later Nations stories take place in Gainesville and Jacksboro, Texas. I went to high school and now live in Gainesville (after a stint in Hollywood). Went to the second grade in Jacksboro. Another thing I’m careful about is the topography and geology of the area. My WIP…BONE…mostly takes place in the Kiamichi Mountains (also know as the Kiamichi Wilderness in the Choctaw Nation (southeast Oklahoma) and the Seven Devil hills (part of the mountain range).
I had read somewhere an article by a so-called old west expert, that hitching rails in front of saloons and other businesses was a Hollywood invention like tied down guns. Your pic proves that to be not so. Thanks. The Long Branch burned in 1885 and not rebuilt.
Another big mistake I’ve seen is the description of gunsmoke. “He looked for the tell-tail black cloud of gunsmoke”…uh, not. I’ve suggested to the writers doing that to go to YouTube and see black powder guns being fired. They didn’t call it black powder back then either…it was just gunpowder until the late 1890s when ‘smokeless’ powder became available.

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JP Blickenstaff
October 9, 2018 at 4:35 pm

area sketch maps are a great idea, Even topological maps like Louie L’Amour uses. My brother will even sketch out a map if one is not provided. Makes me cautious to get my distances and timing right.

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