Avoiding the Real
I’ve started outlining the story I’ll be doing for this year’s NaNoWriMo and one of the major things I’ve been trying to decide–since it takes place in the real world–what aspects of real life I should leave in and what I should totally make up. Of course, there is the obvious. My characters will be fictional, not real people. (And no, I will not be basing them on real people either. If, for example, one has a short temper and another is a compulsive hoarder that does not mean these are real people. They just happen to, by coincidence, have some traits that some real people also have.) And the major places will be real. San Diego, New York, the Pacific Ocean, and Uzbekistan will exist in the world of the book even if I don’t write about them specifically. There will be Walmarts and Starbucks, Harvard and the downtown library.
But then we get into some fuzzy stuff. I don’t want to mention real streets on which my characters live because people can just do Google Street View and say, “Aha! There’s a restaurant on the corner of 1st and Juniper, not a Victorian house like in the story! The author must have never lived in San Diego AT ALL!” So for residential areas, I picked a blank space on the real map and added a fictional town there. I also have plot reasons for creating a fictional town rather than, say, just adding one fictional street like I did for NaNoWriMo two years ago. And as for businesses, I’m still not sure whether to use existing ones on the map or to just make some up. I may end up doing both depending on the needs of the story.
What you include as real or fictional depends entirely on the goal of your story. If you’re aiming for a traditional fantasy story, you’re going to do the world building from scratch. The reader will understand that everything will be made up and they’ll go along for the ride with that assumption in mind. If you’re writing a typical cozy mystery, the setting is going to be quite realistic because the reader has to be able to solve the mystery with logic or at least believe where you’re coming from when they read the solution.
On my part, I feel like I’m walking a fine line. I want the setting and atmosphere to be as real and plausible as possible so when I start introducing the stranger elements of the plot, it will seem odd and unsettling but not fake. I think this will also be the first time that I will be attempting hard science fiction for NaNoWriMo rather than some hand wavy space opera. I’ve been semi-joking on Twitter that the story idea is a cross between science fiction and “SoCal gothic”. I’m aiming for a story rooted firmly in genre but with a veneer of beach bum creepiness. Who knows how that’ll go, but I’m always up for doing something different every NaNoWriMo. A challenge is almost always more exciting than the same-old same-old.