Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Perfect Setting

One of my favorite excuses for abandoning a story is the difficulty of balancing realism with fiction in the setting. If the setting is too fictional (certain genres excepted), everyone will know me for a fraud. Err too far on the side of realism, and the story gets bogged down in the mundane details. Rather than just writing the story and worrying about it later, I become obsessed with finding the perfect setting. Usually, I don't find one, and the story goes unfinished.

I was reminded of the setting dilemma after reading this review of Jim Butcher's Storm Front over at The Wertzone. The book is the first in the series The Dresden Files, which is set in Chicago. I called Chicago home for many years, and was stoked to find a book set in my city.

It didn't take long to realize that even without the fantastical creatures, Butcher's Chicago was not quite the same city as mine. I was disappointed by every inaccurate detail. The friend who'd loaned me the book in the first place was also a former Chicagoan, yet he loved the Chicago setting despite the flaws. Every time I came across a new detail that didn't match the real city, I'd wonder why Butcher even bothered to use Chicago as his backdrop if he wasn't going to research it properly.

Maybe I'm just too picky. Could it be ok to mix a real setting with convenient yet inaccurate details? Although I was bothered, I certainly didn't let it deter me from continuing for the next several books in the series. And it could be that I was the only one who cared. Obviously, there's a point at which vagueness, at least, is preferred. Too specific, and you could wind up creating a personal hell for some unlucky person: the next 867-5309 debacle.

Until I figure out how to balance my need for accuracy with a convenient setting, I just have to keep hoping that someday I'll be lucky enough to actually find that perfect setting.


  1. Setting is critical, but more important that "accuracy" in a fictional novel, is believability, similar things, but still different. I think perhaps in Butcher's Chicago in Storm Front, we're looking at an alternate Chicago and some changes are to be expected. Also, every novel relies on the reader's willing suspension of disbelief, you know? But I'm with you on one point, if the details or so inaccurate that they're no longer believable, I'm out of the story for a moment...and that's a problem. Thanks for the post!

  2. While reading the third collection of the comic series DMZ, I was annoyed when one of the panels claimed to portray the outside of NY Methodist Hospital but did not display any of the actual facades of the building, which is a mere block and a half from my apartment.

    A whole group of us got a bit vocal while watching Spiderman 2 in a theater when the R train suddenly became elevated in Manhattan. But we are a bunch of subway nerds anyway.

    I think the trick is getting most of the major details and enough minor ones right to keep the locals happy, and then feeling free to flesh out the world as suits the story.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Alex.

    In this case, I became hyper aware of the problems when, it the opening shtick, the protagonist told us that his office was in "Midtown Chicago." While a Google search does reveal a handful of businesses scattered throughout the entire city with the word "Midtown" in their names, I have never heard anyone refer to a section of Chicago as "Midtown."

    I found this detail so off-putting that every related inaccuracy in the book simply jumped off the page at me. Obviously, my disbelief was triggered. Even the friend who wasn't bothered had noticed these things, so he was out of the story, too. But we kept reading. I guess a better question might be when that goes from problem to deal-breaker.

  4. Doug,

    Funny you should mention Spiderman 2. That scene was filmed on the L tracks in Chicago. All my former coworkers loved the movie even more because they remembered the antique cars going by the tracks outside our office windows while that scene was being shot.