Authors Who Do and Don’t Set Their Fiction in One Place

A writer’s imagination can travel the world or stay mostly in a specific locale. And readers like both approaches.

Some authors are known for situating many of their novels and stories in one town, city, region, or state. Charles Dickens: London. James Joyce: Dublin. L.M. Montgomery: Prince Edward Island. Stephen King: Maine. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Massachusetts. Edith Wharton: New York City. Anne Tyler: Baltimore. Anne Rice: New Orleans. William Faulkner: Mississippi (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County inspired by the real Lafayette County). Of course, those and other locale-centric authors occasionally vary their settings — as did Dickens with his mid-book sending of Martin Chuzzlewit to America, Hawthorne when he put The Marble Faun in Italy, and Wharton when she focused on Massachusetts resident Ethan Frome.

There are also writers who set many of their novels in either of two places, as Fannie Flagg does with small towns in Missouri and Alabama (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — born on this date, January 15, in 1929 — first became widely known during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott).

Other authors bounce around to lots of locales in their fiction. A prime example is James Michener, who wrote novels titled Alaska, Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Texas, etc. Henry James set much of his fiction in the U.S., England, France, or Italy. Terry McMillan has placed her novels in places such as Michigan, Phoenix, Jamaica, and San Francisco. And, in different books, Lee Child’s roaming Jack Reacher character visits Georgia, Texas, New York City, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, France, and elsewhere.

The toggling can be in one novel, too, as when Donna Tartt places The Goldfinch protagonist Theo Decker in New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam — even as her previous book, The Little Friend, stays in Mississippi.

Some advantages of different settings? Many readers relish “seeing” new places, and authors might be refreshed and invigorated not to be in a geographical “rut.” Heck, the plot, prose, and characters can end up being less predictable because of the new locales. And readers can be nicely surprised — I know I was when Wilkie Collins yanked A Rogue’s Life protagonist Frank Softly out of England and put him on a ship to Australia.

Among the advantages of using the same place in multiple books? Authors know the terrain well and thus their fiction can seem more authentic. Also, they’re able to spend more time on plot, prose, and characters instead of countless hours researching and visiting new locales. Meanwhile, the better writers who focus on one place are obviously “traveling” in other ways — through the realm of human emotions.

Of course, the further back in time authors lived, the harder it was for them to get to other places and to do research. From what I’ve heard, there were few computers or jumbo jets available to Jane Austen…

Who are your favorite past and present authors who have repeatedly used one locale, or who have used different locales in different works? Any other thoughts on this topic?

(There are no California references in this blog post because I recently wrote a piece about literature set in that state.)

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m 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 “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as 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 dastor@earthlink.net 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.

There Are Places They Remember

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?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)



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 dastor@earthlink.net 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.