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.)
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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 email@example.com 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.