When you see the names of the authors Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Anne Tyler, and L.M. Montgomery, what places in their novels come to mind? Maine, London, Baltimore, and Canada’s Prince Edward Island.
When you see the name of the author Lee Child, what place in his novels comes to mind? Um…well…uh…is there a town called Mayhem?
Yes, some authors write fiction that’s often set in the same locale, while other authors send their characters all over the map. In the latter case, Lee Child’s justice-dispensing former military cop Jack Reacher has drifted to California, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, London (where he didn’t meet Charles Dickens), Maine (where he could’ve met Stephen King), Nebraska, New York City, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, DC, and elsewhere.
And of course many authors are in between when it comes to geography — having a go-to locale for a number of their books, but mixing things up in other works. An example of that would be John Steinbeck, whose best-known novels unfold in California but who also wrote fiction set on Long Island, NY (The Winter of Our Discontent), in an unnamed European country under Nazi occupation (The Moon Is Down), etc. There’s also Mark Twain, who’s best known for his books set in and near the Mississippi River, but who also wrote novels such as Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (which takes place in France) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (duh — the Constitution State and England). Twain’s site-jumping is not surprising given how much of a world traveler he was.
Advantages for often keeping characters in one state, city, or town? An author has a rock-solid knowledge of that particular locale — where she or he might have grown up and perhaps still lives — and thus can showcase the locale in a totally authentic way. Also, writers who focus on one place don’t have to spend as much time researching and traveling for their next novel, leaving more time for crafting the actual prose. And many a reader likes the comfort level of always knowing where characters are living their fictional lives.
But putting protagonists in various locales can keep things fresh — and draw in new readers interested in seeing (among other things) how accurately their neck of the woods is depicted.
As noted before, there are various lines on the geographical continuum for where authors situate their books. For instance, Henry James changed his locales but had favorites he returned to. So you’ll see his characters more than once in New York City, Paris, London, etc., but not in as many places as Lee Child sends Jack Reacher. (Why Henry James didn’t create a justice-dispensing former military cop is for psychologists to mull over… 🙂 )
And it’s exciting, surprising, and intriguing when an author we mostly associate with one locale suddenly puts a novel in a different place — as when Dickens sent Martin Chuzzlewit‘s title character to America, the usually Scotland-focused Sir Walter Scott chose France for Quentin Durward, the usually U.S.-centered Willa Cather wrote the Quebec City-based Shadows on the Rock, the usually New England-centered Nathaniel Hawthorne picked Rome for The Marble Faun, the usually ship-at-sea-chronicling Herman Melville kept Pierre on land in New York State and New York City, and the often-NYC-focused Edith Wharton put Ethan Frome in rural Massachusetts.
Where do your favorite authors set their books? Do they mostly focus on one locale, or put their characters in many places, or fall somewhere in between?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.