Fictional Locales

Since returning to science fiction, fictional locales have become a must. The worlds of The Compact, The Realm, and elsewhere don’t exist. Their eco-systems don’t exist. They not only have to be conjured from scratch, they have to be made to seem real. Sometimes, another fictional locale can serve as a model. The Caliphate, for instance, derives some of its feel from Robert Ferrigno’s Assassin series. However, The Caliphate is a kinder, gentler version of Ferrigno’s Islamified America, resembling Malaysia more than, say, Iran. I created the place to be 1.) big and wealthy, 2.) someplace to make a people squirm, and 3.) just different enough from present-day America or Europe to make the similarities stand out.

Likewise, I had used Blade Runner as an inspiration for the industrialized Bromdar, a place that makes Coruscant from the Star Wars franchise look like a peaceful suburb. Not a single spot of land visible from space, lots of smog, and ground levels that may or may not be on the actual ground. Or if they are, forget about the sky.

But in the can is Holland Bay, a crime novel I’ve taken out again and again over the years. The titular Holland Bay is a depressed neighborhood in the fictional city of Monticello, Ohio, situated between Cedar Point Amusement Park and the quiet beach town of Vermillion, both real places, and on the banks of the Musgrave River, which is not a real river. If you drive around Monticello’s borders, which comprise the real-life Erie County, Ohio, you’ll find no crumbling steel city, no high bluffs over a navigable river in sight of the Bass Islands, and no foreign auto plants. All you’ll find is the beginnings of prairie that stretches from well east of Cleveland to Chicago and beyond. There are barely any towns bigger than a few hundred people, other than Milan, birthplace of Thomas Edison, and Sandusky, a small port city famous for the aforementioned Cedar Point. So how do I make real a town where the very land it sits on really doesn’t exist?

That one is actually harder than doing alien worlds. People who make up cities tend to give them off-sounding names. River City is a common one. In fact, it’s always Something City or Ft. Something-or-other or Port Insert-Name-Here. Even I had trouble, originally calling the town “Port Ontario,” which didn’t work for anyone who saw my notes, myself included. Then I stumbled upon an article about The Edge of Night, a soap opera that was more a crime show than the usual medical or corporate shenanigans. It was set in a generic Midwestern town called Monticello, but it’s opening credits showed the skyline of Cincinnati. In fact, it was switched to Los Angeles for its final two years after WKRP in Cincinnati aired. So I used the Monticello name for my own city since the show also implied it was set in Ohio. But…

It still had to seem real. How’d I do that? I corrupted a few place names, like “Serievo,” a Slavic enclave originally called “Sarajevo.” I gave neighborhoods multiple names to imply some history, like Old Rock Ridge, also called “Greektown,” since it was heavily Greek for a time. Then I shook up the ethnic makeup of those places. I also described certain settings with mismatched buildings. A hospital, for instance, looks like a Gothic castle with modern, cinderblock wings slapped on, modern upscale eateries and bars on one side, and the usual bad neighborhood markers like pawn shops and gun stores on the other. Finally, I sprinkled the names of families like Wolcott and Custis and Reed all over the place. Certain families or individuals come to define a city. For instance, the names of Taft, Harrison, and Hudepohl (as in the brewery) are all over Cincinnati. I could also have laid out a poorly followed grid and gone with my native Cleveland’s habit of naming streets East 150th or West 39th and so on.

It sometimes takes a little effort, but if you finesse the details, sometimes a reader doesn’t even notice you’re making things up. In fact, if Holland Bay sells, I’m waiting for someone to email me and tell me I got the subway schedules wrong.

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