Is Sennebec, Maine, a Real Place?

Paul Doiron here—

One of the questions I get asked most often is about the locations in my books. Readers want to know if there really is a Bad Little Falls (yes, it’s in downtown Machias) or an actual Square Deal Diner (no, there is not, although if you visit Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, you’ll catch something of its vibe).

So what makes an author choose to use a made-up setting versus a real world place? Faulkner famously created Yoknapatawpha County [at left] for his books. But James Joyce was so scrupulous in his descriptions of Dublin that people said you could navigate the city streets using Ulysses as an atlas.

I can’t speak for other novelists, but here’s how I approach the decision.

I prefer to set my novels in actual places because I am a fan of literary tourism. My wife and I spent one of the greatest days on my life walking around Paris finding the places mentioned in The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. So in my new book I got a kick out of describing the decor at the McDonald’s in Machias down to the color of the walls (although those things tend to change). And when I raised the lost village of Flagstaff from the bottom of Flagstaff Lake in The Poacher’s Son, I kept a 1940s map of the ghost town above my desk so my descriptions of the streets matched the actual (former) buildings.

Why invent places then? Sometimes it’s because reality is inconvenient to the story I want to tell. The reason the Square Deal isn’t Moody’s is because I wanted Mike’s favorite diner to be smaller than the well-known tourist destination. Although there really is a Township Nineteen within spitting distance of Machias (in fact, there are two), I invented my own unincorporated plantation because I needed the climax of Bad Little Falls to unfold with a very specific chase across snowy blueberry barrens to a frozen lake and then through a desolate heath. Sure, I could have adapted the story to real landmarks in Washington County, but I wasn’t sure readers would appreciate the considerable effort it would take to do so when, really, what we all want from a book is a gripping story.

I play coy in my novels, in other words. Some places are as real as can be (the Washington County Jail) and others (the midcoast village of Seal Cove) are total figments of my imagination. My hope is that all the settings feel so truthful that even seasoned Maine travelers won’t know the difference. But if you do care, I have created a Google map of Mike Bowditch’s Maine [at right] to help separate the facts from the fiction.

So what’s the answer to the question I pose in the title of this post? Is there really a Sennebec, Maine? Well, yes…and no. There’s a Sennebec Pond that spans the town of Union and Appleton. But my Sennebec includes a salt marsh and tidal creek that’s more like something you’d find downstream in the coastal community of Warren. The village in my books is a shifty place that’s hard to pin down.

But if I do my job right as a novelist and you’re turning pages as fast as you can, then the answer to the question shouldn’t really matter. No?

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7 Responses to Is Sennebec, Maine, a Real Place?

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Congratulations on your nomination for the 2012 Reviewer’s Choice Awards for “Bad Little Falls.”

    As for real places versus imagined places . . . I want to be able to lose myself in the story of the book, so, no, it doesn’t matter to me if the place is real or imagined. As long as it works for the story being told . . . .

  2. Doris Ray says:

    Just love the app! Thanks forgot posting this!

  3. Doris Ray says:

    Just love the map! Thanks for taking the time to do this! I read all three books with the Maine Gazetteer by my chair…. Totally understand your dilemma . I think you’ve made all the locations “live” for me. You’ve done the same with Maine weather. I’ve never read a better description of March than in Trespasser. Keep at it!

  4. lil Gluckstern says:

    Congratulations on your nomination. I love guessing what is real and what isn’t. I love the map. By the way, I have subscribed to your wife’s posts. They are very moving. Thank you for so much literary pleasure.

  5. Paul Doiron says:

    Thank you, everyone. Award nominations (and, I will admit, awards) are always fun, but as I sit at my writing desk every morning it always becomes clear to me that it is the books that ultimately matter. I love telling stories and it means the world to me that readers respond to them with such interest and enthusiasm.

  6. I think a blend approach is wonderful. I get a frisson of pleasure at recognizing a place, but also love the inventiveness of the imagined…I will look for your books, and it sounds like congratulations are in order!

  7. John Clark says:

    I also want to congratulate you on your nomination. Our library book group is reading The Poacher’s Son this month. Sennebec is a great place to play with. Having grown up on Sennebec Hill Farm, I have a particular fondness for the name and anything associated with it.

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