Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What's In a Place Name?


This month I'm exploring names and their uses in writing. Today, in particular, I'd like to focus on names of places. 

Whether you realize it or not, what an author chooses to call the name of a place does have an effect. It can be a way to steer a reader to or from a particular genre.

Kat and the U.S. Marshal by Celia Yeary is one example of a Western romance, accurately set in Old San Antonio, Texas.

Of course, there are exceptions to any rule and any genre. What comes to mind is the movie, Cowboys and Aliens, a surprising, yet successful combination of Western and science fiction, set in the 1873 Arizona Territory, yet featuring a strange combination of aliens, spaceships, Apaches, outlaws, a gold mine, and more.

For the most part, though, you want to stick with the name of a location that makes sense. For example, it wouldn't do to name a city Chicago, when the story actually takes place in England, or in a time period before America was even discovered. 

There are countless workable possibilities for a Chicago, Illinois setting. I chose Chicago and its suburbs when I wrote the mystery, Two Wrongs, so I could include many Chicago area landmarks, such as the old Marshall Field's store, and also DePaul University, where I attended college and met my husband. 

Again, while working as a secretary at a Chicago law firm, it was natural for me to choose that city as the location for my romantic suspense, Killer Career, about a lawyer who wants out of her profession. 


There are countless other examples of towns and settings for novels that make sense.

I invite you to name one from either your own book or someone else's that you enjoyed, and share it with us in the comment section.



Morgan Mandel writes Thrillers, Mysteries and Romances, depending on her mood. She is a past president of Chicago-North RWA and prior Library Liaison for MWMWA.Her most current releases are the humorous romance, Her Handyman, & the thriller,Forever Young: Blessing or Curse.Coming soon is Blessing or Curse, second in the Always Young Trilogy.Find all her books at:MorganMandel.com

23 comments :

  1. In one of my stories, my character goes all over the mid-west, but it's in the far future after a natural disaster. Many many generations have come and gone over the coming and going of an ice age as well, so though the people tried to hang onto names, places have changed drastically. Take a name and hand it down that many times, sometimes with a written record and sometimes not, it can change as pronunciation alters or someone tries to spell it phonetically. It was kinda fun traveling through time.

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  2. The Rosen Singularity combines familiar territory with invented locales. Much of it is set in and around Ipswich, Massachusetts, near where I live, and references local landmarks and institutions, such as Zumi's Cafe in downtown Ipswich or the sculptures on Gloucester harbor. But I also needed a stage for an African connection. Big chunks of the story take place in Busanyu, a wholly fabricated West African country ruled by the brutal and very long-lived dictator Edgar Jabari Mbutsu. The place names were devised to mimic phonetically several West African dialects without being actual words.

    My background in world-building as a science fiction writer helped me create a believable setting that seems almost like you might find it on a map. In fact, I went so far as to site it on the coast not far from Angola and constructed a plausible history and geography for the back story, most of which stayed in my notes.

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  3. My first novel takes place in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but a number of the locations described within the city are fictitious. References to Highway 24, Fountain Creek, Woodland Park, and Wilkerson Pass denote real places.

    My second novel is set in Mountain Park, a make-believe town tucked against the mountains northwest of Colorado Springs. A number of small towns dot that area, but none are called Mountain Park.

    A WIP takes place in Grand Junction, Colorado, on the Western Slope, where I lived for several years. Other novels on my bucket list to finish are also set in Colorado locations, some real and some not.
    In all cases, I strive to include enough actual locations to make the story believable to residents of the area.

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  4. Linda, are your books still for sale? I'd love to read the one about COS! Question for everyone: do you create maps for your locations? Either to keep things straight in your writing, or to include in your novels. I'm just curious.

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  5. Yes Dani, I create sketches of my locations to keep everything straight! My new novel is mostly set in a small southern Illinois town that I wanted to call Stillwater. Of course that is a city in Oklahoma, as many know—but I'm using that fact in a creative way in the story because the name fit the place so well.

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  6. It does help to be familiar with a place, unless you've made it up. Sometimes, I'll use fictitious names of streets in real cities, so that I won't offend anyone who lives on a certain street by giving a wrong or unflattering description.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  8. In my upcoming book, I made up the city name as I didn't want to be specific with every street and location, tho I did use some real streets. I had to use a map to pick out streets when they drive to another place where I did use the actual city name. That was enough work there. ha! GIRL Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie, coming summer 2013!

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  9. All my books are set in real places, but one book needed a fictional place. It's a fantasy romance, Fakin' It, and the hero is designing a robot to send to a distant planet. What to name this planet? I searched around for that perfect planet name, and saw that it was right in front of me! I'd bought a rug in Istanbul from a store called Ugur, and the owner's card was taped to my desk. So it became the Planet Ugur, and I made sure to thank Alender, the store's owner, on my website for that inspiration!
    One more fictional place was 1149 Park Avenue, in my novel set during Prohibition, IT WAS LIKE THIS. I'm a longtime fan of The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason. In one episode, his boss lives at 1149 Park. That was a perfect address for me--there's no 'real' 1149 Park, and it was my tribute to a great show.

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  10. I can see why making up names of places works very well in fantasy novels and books about zombies!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  11. Thanks so much, Morgan. I'm just now getting to mail and I was excited that you used one of my Dime Novels.
    Settings can be tricky, and I know Texas, and if I need additional material, I have numerous on-line Lone Star State sources.
    When reading western romances that are set in Texas, I can tell if that person is a Texan or not. Often I've seen people going the wrong direction from another to arrive in a particular place.
    This is why I don't set stories in, oh, Baltimore, or Atlanta, or any other state. I stick with what I know. Thanks for making my day!
    PS--all the comments were interesting, too, about places they've used in books.

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  12. I know how hard it is to name a town. It took me months to decide on Rhodes End for my paranormal series. I love Celia's westerns.

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  13. Yes, I love Celia's Westerns also, one reason I chose to mention her book!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  14. I use real place names almost all the time, because they have an impact on the story. It helps that I've bee to some oddly named places, like Desolation Sound, Virgin Gorda, Devils Island, the Aposotles, Lake Superior, The Inside Passage, all from my sailing mystery series. In my detective series, Sean NMI Sean will go to odd Minnesota towns, like Fertile, Shakopee, and Minnewakaton.

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  15. For our romance anthologies (Snowflake Secrets, Seasons of Love, Directions of Love, An Aspen Grove Christmas, and The Art of Love coming in September 2013), we created the fictional town of Aspen Grove, Colorado. Most of us were familiar with the area in the mountains outside of Denver. Aspen Grove is supposed to be a silver mining town with many of the old buildings. It was inspired by the real towns of Idaho Springs and Georgetown, but by creating our own town, we could make it anything we wanted it to be.

    We set our cozy mysteries (Murder...They Wrote and Murder in Paradise) in real locations in Hawaii. We know the area well, so it's easy to recreate and describe the places.

    We also know the area of Southern California where we live. I set my latest fantasy/mystery/romance in and around Laguna Beach. I describe real places those who know the area will recognize.

    You're right about the setting being consistent with the story.

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  16. I love reading about how you all have picked the names of your places, and I must say that Carl's are unique!

    Morgan Mandel
    Twitter: @MorganMandel

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  17. My Catskill Mountains mysteries are set at Hemlock Lake--named because of the trees that surround it and the connotations of poison. Hemlock Lake and Through a Yellow Wood are dark and moody rural mysteries. As far as I know, there is no Hemlock Lake in the Catskills, but there is an actual lake of that name farther west in New York State.

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  18. Great choice, Carolyn!

    Morgan Mandel

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  19. Another interesting way to approach this is to check if a town you'd like to use as a model has an older and obsolete name. My little town was once Bowserville (and should be again!) and the neighboring town also had a different and snazzier name which I'm thinking of using for a story.

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  20. Dani, I'll have to look around to see if I still have some copies of that first novel.

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  21. My Kim Reynolds mystery series is set in a township in NJ similar to the one I lived in for forty years. I simply decided to give it a fictional name. Of course, sticking to a big city setting is probably easier for readers.

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  22. I often use real places in contemporaries, but call them something else so I'm free to change whatever fits my story best. Why? Because this gives me the chance to use a faniliar setting, but not be restricted by the real place. In my historicals, though, I pretty much stick to how it was in a real place back then, or as close as I can come to it from research. The Outlaws, which will be up as an ebook soon on Amazon, I used Billy The Kid as a character but made sure he was where I said he was in the New Mexico Territory at the time. Jane

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  23. Dani has an interesting suggesting about seeing what the old name of a town was and using that. Many of those prior names are very interesting sounding.

    Morgan Mandel
    Twitter: @MorganMandel

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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