Why I Write About Fictional Places

Many authors set their mysteries in real places, but because I’m writing about small towns I’ve chosen to have my characters live their lives in fictional settings. I grew up in Los Angeles, but after I married I lived in a series of small towns. Each one had its own culture and personality. I live in a small town now, one set in the foothills of the Southern Sierra. I’ve used this background in several of my books—and not always with the same name or surroundings.

What I’ve learned while living in a small town is that businesses don’t stay open. In the time that it takes to write and get a book published, if I used a real restaurant or gift shop in one of my books it might be closed by the time the time the book came out. Also, if the town is fictional, I can change locations of homes and businesses to suit the plot of the story.

With my Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series, I decided to locate the town on the California coast between Santa Barbara and Ventura. There is one real small beach town in the general area, Carpenteria, which is in Santa Barbara County but I wanted Rocky Bluff to be in Ventura County because I’m more familiar with that one. I also didn’t want people to think that Rocky Bluff was a substitute name for Carpenteria.

Rocky Bluff and its police department are completely fictional. Years ago, I lived in Oxnard when it was still a small town. I knew many of the police officers on the Oxnard P.D., partied with them and their families, and was good friends with their wife. It was a different police department than it is now and faces much different challenges. When I decided to write about a police department, I wanted it to be more like the smaller one of that earlier time period.

The Rocky Bluff P.D. is small and doesn’t have all the modern investigative tools that a larger department in a big city has. Though they do use the Ventura County Coroner, most of their cases are solved the old fashioned way, a lot of footwork, hands-on investigation, and questioning of witnesses. And as I tell my friends who are police officers who read my books, “It’s my police department and I can do it anyway I want.”

In the Rocky Buff P.D., AN AXE TO GRIND, the setting plays an important part in the story. The book begins with the discovery of a corpse without a head. Detective Doug Milligan and his partner’s investigation takes them to an appliance store, a home on the hillside that was once a part of a Spanish hacienda, an apartment house, a new trendy restaurant, and an abandoned and dilapidated warehouse. With his fiancée, Stacey, he attempts a romantic walk on the top of the bluff overlooking the ocean, but it is rudely interrupted. Alone, Doug goes on the University of California Santa Barbara campus looking for a suspect with dire results.

When my characters do go to a real place like the UCSB campus, I do the necessary research.  I’ve been to UCSB and I did interview a campus police officer to get the details correct for what happens on the campus.

Of course, like I would have to do if I were writing about a real place, I have to keep track of what I’ve written about Rocky Bluff, the geography, the location of businesses, the names of streets and which way they run. 

Like I feel about my characters, to me Rocky Bluff is as real as any of the many places I’ve lived in and visited over the years. I can see Rocky Bluff in my mind’s eye and I hope anyone who reads AN AXE TO GRIND or the previous books in the series, will see Rocky Bluff as a real place just as I do. All of the books in the series are listed on my website.

I wrote this blog at an earlier time, now the latest book in the series is ANGEL LOST. The beach plays an important part in this story as do the orange groves farther up in the hills.

F.M. Meredith a.k.a. Marilyn Meredith


Anonymous said…
You bring up a really good point - if you're going to be writing about a venue in more than one book, in a series, for example, then you need that venue to stay the same. In some ways, fictional towns and cities have a little more continuity than real ones do.

In my two mystery novels, my protagonist Henry Grave investigates crimes on cruise ships. I've worked on a lot of cruise ships, but in my books, the ships are all made up. Partly that's because I want the best of all possible worlds, and partly that's because I need the ships to be sailing unchanged for many voyages, and I need the crew members to stay put!

William Doonan

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