Even if your town’s made up, it has to be real

Please welcome today’s guest, Maureen Milliken, sharing a few thoughts about setting mystery novels in Maine.


At the Crime Bake conference in Dedham, Mass., last November I was standing in the agent pitch line with a fellow writer and the conversation turned to what our books were about. After telling her about mine, she remarked that her book, too, was set in Maine.

“Oh, do you live in Maine?” I asked.

No, she lived in New York.

“Are you originally from Maine?”

Turns out she visited a quaint coastal town for a very short time several years back and loved it.

I asked if she was going to make some extended visits to do research for her setting. She seemed confused.

“I don’t have anything planned, but I do hope to get back there to visit one day.”

I asked if she was concerned about getting the setting right. She seemed surprised.

“No, I’m using guidebooks and the Internet.”

A totally different discussion about setting came up at another writers’ conference I attended in April.

At the Friday night bar schmooze at the Maine Writers and Publisher’s Alliance Crime Wave, a lively discussion broke out over whether having a mystery set in a fake town was better than in a real town. Let’s just say we agreed to disagree.

Writing is a grand and glorious thing, and one of the best things about it is that there’s no right way or wrong way, just the writer’s way. That said, writers focused on the craft agree that setting is one of the major characters in a book. A book whose author doesn’t know the characters well tends to not hit all the marks. That is true for setting as well. I couldn’t help think the book my line friend at Crime Bake was pitching probably wasn’t all it could be.

While guidebooks and the Internet have their uses, if you live here, you know why that won’t work to create a setting. I can’t imagine the guide book, for instance, that would tell you how Route 27 looks after an ice storm right when the sun is beginning to come up the next morning.

Route 27 in Belgrade the morning after an ice storm.

Or what the docks at the local marina look like in November.

The marina, abandoned in November after all the summer folks go home.

Or that many of the state’s residents bring their garbage to a dump instead of having it picked up. And what the hopper at that dump is like, especially the weekend after Christmas.And the knock-you-for-a-loop-every-time-you-see-it view you get when you drive to the dump.

The view on the drive to the Belgrade, Maine, dump never gets old.

It’s a good bet none of those things are important enough for a plot to turn on – okay maybe the dump hopper and I’m already doing something on that, so stay away from it, okay? But if a writer doesn’t understand the million tiny things that make a setting special, it’ll show.

I am firmly in the camp of making up towns, but with a serious nod to a real area. The idea is that a reader can almost feel it, think maybe he or she drove through it last time in the area. It’s real on the page.

I’ll admit that before I started writing, I used to be bugged by made-up towns. I’d pore over maps trying to figure out where they were, what they were supposed to be.

Living in Maine, many of us who read Stephen King couldn’t help but wonder about his, because they seemed so much like places we know. In fact, in a recent discussion at work, one coworker asked another, new to the state and a King fan, “Been to Derry yet?”

The Wikipedia entry about Derry – used here only for our entertainment purposes not actual research! – says it’s “said to be near Bangor, Maine, but King has acknowledged that Derry is actually his portrayal of Bangor. A map on King’s official website, though, places Derry in the vicinity of the town of Etna.” Which is near Bangor.

Confusing? Yes. Also spot-on.

Once I started writing fiction and got over my journalist’s panic at making things up, the fake town thing made sense. I could put things where I wanted, invent businesses and organizations, move geography around to make it work with my plot.

And I realized that inventing a town or area is a lot like inventing characters – writers may use attributes, elements, even feelings, picked up along the way, but a town isn’t really a replica of a real town full of fake stuff. Not even necessarily inspired by a real town. Like our characters, it’s a bunch of stuff mixed together that’s sprung up in our head and unique in its own way.

Where’s my town? Somewhere near Kingfield and Phillips in Franklin County. Even looks kind of like them. Routes 27 and 16 are nearby. The exact location? Well, just kind of up there. Somewhere. As Wikipedia might say, it’s said to be near Kingfield, Maine.

But if you’re going to make it up, you still have to get it right.

In fact, once I moved back to Maine three years ago after almost 30 years away, this became glaringly obvious to me. So obvious, I had to move my town to make it more real. I wrote about this brilliant decision for Maine Crime Writers in January 2013.

I admit it. Even though I grew up here, I was faking it a little on setting before I got back. Not on purpose. I just forgot about stuff like the dump, and ridge roads and a lot of other little things that you only know if you’re here.

There were those at that Crime Wave Friday night booze schmooze who insisted a real town or city is the way to go. They pointed out you can even put fake things in it. The readers who know there’s not a Burger King on that corner will (hopefully) be far outweighed by those from away who have no clue.

As I said, there’s no right answer. But readers no matter where they’re from will see the falseness if it’s not the real thing – fake town or actual one.

As Bob Dylan wrote, “Know your song well before you start singing.”

While there was lively disagreement that Friday night, when it comes down to the real town versus fake town debate, we’re really on the same page, because good fake towns are as real as we can get them.


Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville. She writes a twice-monthly column that is published in both newspapers. Her mystery novel, Cold Hard News, in future-publish mode, is set in Franklin County, as are the prequel and sequel she is working on. She lives in Belgrade Lakes.

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6 Responses to Even if your town’s made up, it has to be real

  1. Jewel Hanley says:

    Your article has reminded me that my real Maine area with a new name is so a part of me I leave out the parts of it that could make it real to a reader. I have forgotten about the lines at the ‘transfer station’ as we take our dump, the double frost heaves with the big dip in the middle as the paving of one town ends and the next town starts a year later, and waiting for the wild turkeys to get out of the road. Thanks for reminding me to look a my setting with new eyes.
    Jewel Hanley

  2. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Great column, Maureen! I enjoyed that discussion on the Friday night of Crime Wave and as you know, also am a member of the fake-town-near-real-towns camp. And that brings another Maine thing to mind: that New York visitor who set her book in Maine probably would call a vacation home on a lake a cottage, when we all know it’s a camp.


  3. MCWriTers says:

    Always an important question. I’ve set books in places that are “away” but they’re always composites of places I’ve been. And when I’m not there, I work from pictures pasted on the wall and my memories of the “feel” of places. It’s those small details the give a sense of place.

    Maine seems to hold an allure for people that makes them want to set their books here. We encourage them to come and visit. Drive the back roads. Observe the dooryards and what people are wearing.

    Sometimes, when I need quick answer, I’ll turn to Maine librarians. It’s from their answers that I got the Valentine’s Day hearts in Portland and the assertion that you can identify the Canadian male tourist by the fact that their shorts are shorter and tighter. When I’m teaching writing, I try to encourage my students to see, to look round, to observe not just sights but sounds and smells and textures–all the things that make the fictional world more real.

    Great post, Maureen. Thanks.

    Kate Flora

  4. Interesting post, Maureen. I set some of my short stories in Maine and owe Kate Flora a huge thanks because she reads them and lets me know what’s wrong.

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Absolutely agree. Setting is an essential part of plot … and, as with all parts of writing, the more details included … the more real. So far I haven’t written a book (even those set outside of Maine) without knowing the territory — or, at minimum, studying it in depth and then visiting. I suspect setting my locations and knowing them well will continue to be an essential part of my writing. Even when the exact towns are visible only to me – and my readers.

  6. Barb Ross says:

    Welcome back, Maureen!

    While it’s kind of a thrill to read a book set in a locale you know well, I actually find it takes me out of the story as I pause to think, “I’ve been in that Whole Foods!” (or Hannafords or Shaws, if we’re talking my part of Maine). So for my cozy mysteries, put me down for a made up town near a real location. For my made up town, I’ve moved some real places much closer together, so I’m not killing the momentum of the book with lots of driving. I’ve also righted a little wrong by having a hospital in my fictional town, when the real hospital in my real town has been shut down.

    But it is also nice to be near a real location, because whenever my sleuth does leave town and I have to figure out travel times, I’m starting from a point on a map.

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