Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Blogger Meredith Cole

Making It Real and Making It Up

Settings in mystery novels can be divided into two neat categories—those that are written about a real place, and those that are set in a fictitious place. But the division is not as clear-cut as you might think. Some fictitious places are actually real places, only thinly disguised as an imaginary place (here I'm thinking of Ed McBain's "Isola" which is clearly Manhattan). And some real places become fictional places of their own. I doubt if I went to Italy I would really get to see Donna Leon’s Venice.

My books Posed for Murder and Dead in the Water are set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's an industrial neighborhood that's never been particularly well-off or beautiful. Williamsburg has been a home for immigrants for 150 years or so, and in the past 30 years it's been home to Hasidic Jews, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Sicilians, and the Polish. In the early 1990's, another group discovered the neighborhood. Attracted by the empty warehouses, cheap rent, and one stop on the subway to Manhattan, artists moved in. They were quickly followed by galleries (more than 37 at one point), music venues, bars, coffee shops and funky boutiques. My amateur sleuth, Lydia McKenzie, is a photographer who longs to hang her work in galleries and give up her day job as an administrative assistant to two private eyes.

But Williamsburg, like every true place, did not stay still or the same. In 2000, the housing boom hit. Landlords began jacking up rents, and building condo buildings on every empty lot. NYU built a dorm for their students. Williamsburg became a tourist destination, and even more restaurants squeezed into storefronts. Artists started moving farther into Brooklyn (or moved away), and the neighborhood continued to evolve.

After 10 years of living in Williamsburg, and setting my books there, I also made the decision to move away. My husband and I had moved there to make our art, but now the rent was no longer cheap. We also wanted to move closer to family. So I started to wonder how my move might affect my third book (tentatively called An Artful Death). When I got stuck on some detail in the first two books, I would go for a walk and observe all the fun and ridiculous sights in my neighborhood and then scribble them down.

But then I realized something important about my Williamsburg. Although the neighborhood in my books is a real place, it is also fictitious. The place in my book is recognizable to anyone who has been there, but it's really more about how the place was 10 years ago when I moved there rather than it is today. I make up the names of the businesses (to protect the innocent) and basically ignore all those condo buildings when it suits me. I also can return (which I did in May of this year) to walk the streets and see how much it has and has not changed. And I can also visit every time I write another book in my Lydia McKenzie series.

Meredith Cole started her career as a screenwriter and filmmaker. She was the winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic competition, and her book Posed for Murder, was published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in 2009. She was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel in 2010. Her second book, Dead in the Water, continues the adventures of photographer and amateur sleuth Lydia McKenzie in Brooklyn. She teaches mystery writing and screenwriting and lives in Virginia. You can visit further with Meredith at her website.


Yves Fey said...

I've done both, but I love using real places - since I write historicals, they must also be imagined as they were or might have been. Still, wonderful excuse to travel!
Your setting sounds quite intriquing.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for stopping by Gayle! I love traveling, too, and usually have to settle for traveling (and time traveling) when I read (which is of course also fabulous).

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi Meredith! (And Molly..)

Yes, I agree..one of the unexpected pleasures of writing about a real--or partly real--place--is that you get to visit from time to time..and be in a world that only you really know. I love visiting Charlie McNally's world--and sometimes, I confess, I even get a bit confused about what's real and what's not.

And that's kind of fun.

Meredith Cole said...

Too true, Hank! I combined a few of the coffee shops in my neighborhood to an ideal coffee shop--and I wish I could go there for a visit...

Alyx Morgan said...

My books are also set in a real city, but I change the names of businesses. Like you, I find describing things easier if I can walk the streets. I sometimes find inspiration for other stories that way too (or at least, locales).