So one of the things I’m a fan of in novels is the “fake town.” Also known as the “fictional city,” the “imaginary inlet,” or the “hypothetical hot spot.” Or maybe I’m the only one who thinks of them like that? Ahem. Okay, moving on.
So what’s the point of crafting your own town to set the story in, versus using an established city. I think the main benefit is the ease with which you can write. If you use an established city, then you’re expected to do more research. But if you create your own town, you can just make it all up as you go. Now there are pros and cons to this.
The pros are obvious: you can build up the town however you like, and whatever’s going to make your job easier. It has whatever history you want it to have. Who cares if there’s not an island west of Seattle, or there’s already a town called New Paltz where you were planning to locate your story. Or maybe the town in your head is just like this town you drove through in Delaware, but your novel’s supposed to take place in Western PA. These are all things that can be fixed by creating your own location.
Small towns are the perfect breeding grounds for paranormal stories. Creating your own town means starting your own town myths and legends. If you’re telling a story about superheroes, on the other hand, the Fake Megacity is a staple of the genre – Metropolis, Gotham, etc.
Then there’s the cons. Since you can’t just go to Wikipedia and look up your fake town, that means you have to keep all your facts straight. It’s a little more bookkeeping work. It’s also a little more thought – if you say the town only has 5,000 residents, odds are your high school isn’t going to have 1500 students. You don’t have the luxury of going TO your town, or looking up pictures from the town, if you need visuals. And when you’re a soon-to-be-famous-young-adult-author, people can’t flock to the town in your novel (hello Forks!), because it doesn’t really exist.
So what are some things to think about when creating your town?
The name: Your town’s name says a lot about it. Now you can go with a realistic route and take a name that would fit the region of the country you’re talking about (Spanish sounding words if you’re in the Southwest, more French and British words or names if you’re in the colonies). With WITCH EYES, originally I went with the name Springfield, because originally I was going for an Everytown vibe – I wanted downtown Springfield to remind you of a city nearby, no matter where you lived in the country. Instead, it became a Simpsons reminder. It ended up becoming known as Belle Dam, because it has a cool sound and some deeper origins. It’s also something I could see the town founders having decided on.
Of course I’m going to expect a bunch of evil to rear its head if you name your city Devil’s Town. Or Hell. Or Vengeance. You want a name that’s going to have atmosphere, but you don’t want to hit your audience over the head with it. My hometown is named for the man who founded it. Lots of towns are named for famous residents, Presidents, foreign cities or regions. And then you’ve got Intercourse, PA. They can’t all be winners (though obviously that last one is).
The history: So now your town has a name. Fantastic! But who named it? Why? Why’d they choose that spot to settle in, and when? Most settlements start near a source of water because of how important it was way back when. You don’t NEED to know a detailed history of your city, but having some bulletpoints helps. Is it a college town? College towns usually see a huge spike in numbers from August-May, and then go quiet in the summer. Knowing the region where your town is located can give you an idea of the industry that would draw people in. Is it a fishing hamlet? In Silicon Valley? How long has the town been there?
These are minor details that you can always play with down the road. Little details that make the town come alive. Is that mean old guy hanging around the hospital really the last descendant of the guy the town was named after? Is the old high school really haunted by a kid who died there in the 20s? Is the library the building that used to be the old high school? These are little things that can spring up just by stepping back and looking at your setting through the microscope for a few minutes.
The details: I’m assuming that those of you reading this are writing YA. So take a minute and think about the school. What are the school colors? The mascot? How big is the school. A private school typically has a much smaller enrollment than public school, and its more likely that private school kids know all the other students in school. That’s harder in a larger public school. If the town is prosperous, odds are you’ll have a lot of privileged students attending. How’s that going to affect the school dynamic?
Then take a second and think about how the school itself is structured. Are they heavy handed, limiting time between classes (my high school cut it from 5 minutes to 3 by my senior year), dress code, cell phone usage? I went to private school, and the year after I graduated, they stopped allowing backpacks in classrooms. Never knew what you could hide in them, after all.
How are the sports teams? There’s a lot of stories about schools with a dynamic football/basketball/baseball team in recent or current history. My school had a TON of honors from the late 70s, early 80s, but very little since. The more prosperous the team is, the more money athletics brings in to your school.
The color: Last is the fun stuff. What makes this town unique? If there are ghost stories that are passed from parents to children, how did they start? How does the story get embellished over the years? What is the purpose of the story? Obviously, if we’re talking urban fantasy, the legend is most likely true. But until Our Heroes make out that distinction, why does everyone ELSE in town tell the story? Is it entertainment? A story meant to educate, like the urban legends about the babysitter getting phone calls from someone in the house?
What are the hotspots in town? Where do the rich kids hang out? What about the stoners? Are there certain homes with their own particular legends or stories attached? When I was growing up, we had this little patch of woods behind the local elementary school, and it was full of stories. This hill was where a girl got trapped while her boyfriend was being attacked at the bottom, and this long and winding trail is where some guy tripped and fell and was stuck in the woods for a week.
What about people? Who are the notables around town? Is there a town drunk? The town crazy person? How about the hippie New Age woman who owns a crystal shop? Who was the last person to pull off a crazy prank at the high school? Are they still living off the legend of that perfect prank? Every town has its colorful characters – whether they’re politicians, owners of small businesses, or even relatives of the main characters.
So that’s it. A few simple questions that will hopefully help you bring some life to your small town. And if nothing else, it’ll be some great information you can use to fill out scenes later on.
EDIT: I did a follow-up post on this topic. So please check out How to Name Your Fake Town.