How to Create Your Own Fake Town

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.ptaerial

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.

ptdowntownOf 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. St. Ignatius High School, Cleveland OH 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?

ptbluffhouseWhat 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.

24 thoughts on “How to Create Your Own Fake Town

  1. Hi Scott – I love this post! It’s interesting to see what goes in to your writing process.

    I have my own fake town but I’m still working out the history and locals. Lately I have had some fun with street names though. In find that just one or two streets with names like “Corpse Lane” or “Dead Horse Way” add so much. 🙂

    Do you ever draw how you imagine your town looks, or is it all in your head/on paper?

    • I don’t actually draw the town myself, although I’ve sketched out a generalized grid a few times before though. Just so I can figure out which side of town things are on, and how people would head home or whatever.

      Mostly though, I’ll find some pictures for the general area that I’m looking at setting the town in – for homes I went and looked at homes on the market since there’s usually lots of pictures available. 😉

  2. Love this…bookmarking it in case I need to make up my own small town (which I was totally toying with for a new WiP…)

  3. Hypothetical Hot Spot = I LOVE THAT. Eeee, so glad you posted this. I love writing in fake towns. I’m a fan of reading about fake towns, too. They’re just fun to write and read about. All of your points were dead-on. You have to be careful, keep track of things. Names totally matter (Bella Dam = amazing). What I love about your entry is how you point out the little things can be a launching point–a character’s history could be rooted in the town history that you’ve created–for a deeper story. You might not consider a character in relation to where they live, but doing so could prove to be totally beneficial. Also how character’s backgrounds can dictate the type of places they hang around. Awesome entry, Scott!!

  4. PA is a treasure chest of fun town names. Not only do we have Intercourse, we also have Virginville. *hee* Great post, Scottopher! This is something that I always put off, but it’s so worth taking the time to make a detailed plan of the setting ~prior to~ beginning a new WIP. TY!

  5. This is such a great post! Lots of food for thought, especially as I created my own town for The Iron Witch. 🙂

    Dude, we really must be related…

    Do you mind if I link to this?


  6. Just discovered your blog thanks to YA Highway, and love this post. Making up things like towns and the characters that live there is one of the best things about writing fiction in my opinion.

  7. This post could not have come at a better time. I’m working on the details of my NaNoWriMo project and am creating a fictional town for the first time. Great post!

    Also, your book sound awesome, can’t wait to read it! In the meantime I will be stalking you on twitter! 🙂

    • Haha, thank you! I’m kinda itching to work on something where I can build up another town from the ground up. Writing this post really just brought that back to the surface.

      And I’m glad you liked the sound of the book. Thank you so much! That means a lot. 🙂

  8. Thanks for your ideas! I let my sister in law read the first two chapters of my first YA fantasy novel and the first thing she complained about was the fictional town, which really put me down, because as a big LJ Smith fan, the fictional town and history of “Fell’s Church, Virginia” made me think I could do some great things with my own story. Your post has really brought back my confidence. I’m looking forward to expanding it to the fullest and I just hope that maybe when it’s all finished the S-I-L will appreciate the story enough to ignore the towns name! xx 🙂

    BTW looking forward to touring Belle Dam when Whitch Eyes comes out!

  9. I’m a new visitor to your blog and am in the middle of creating my own fake town. Thanks for reminding me of some of the little details that make a town feel authentic. Looking forward to discovering the rest of your blog. 🙂

  10. Wow! Thankyou sooo much!! I absolutely loved your ideas and your suggetions! I have an idea for a story now, I have a feeling that it is going to be really good, all thanks to you! I wish more people would write blogs like this, cause it really helps! I have always thought of making my own town when i become rich, but this is actually better, to create my own town in a story, and have it EXACTLY how i want it, and have the people act how i want them to. Once again, thanks so much!

  11. Hi

    I Just love this post. I am in process of writing my book. Im a beginner and ive always loved the idea of making up my own town. Do you have any examples? Do you draw your town? Do you write everything on computer or keep a binder. Ive been writing since i learned how to and always wrote little stories here and there.

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