When I read books set in cities I know well, I enjoy recognizing familiar locations. It makes me feel like I’ve set foot inside the story. There are good reasons, however, to invent addresses, businesses, even entire towns. The usual rule seems to be that if you say something bad about a place or set a disturbing event in it, make it fictitious. In Sacred Clowns, Tony Hillerman gave New Mexico an entire new pueblo, the fictitious Tano Pueblo, because he had a murder take place during a ceremony. He used real reservations for his other books. Every city, town and reservation has its problems, so it’s not maligning the entire place to write about a crime there, but he felt that the particular one in Sacred Clowns would be objectionable. He included spiritual ceremonies in a couple of other books, but not as crime settings, and only shared what was open for non-tribal members to know. Based on Hillerman’s wisdom, I’m setting a number of scenes in my work in progress at a Mescalero Apache ceremony, but the misdeeds take place in private homes or in other towns.
In my first book, The Calling, I “invented” two entire towns, even though they are intimately based on real places, because my protagonist doesn’t like living there. (I had fun coming up with the name Cauwetska. I looked up words in the Meherrin language that would make good place names, since many Southern towns’ names come from local Indian words.) I actually loved the little town that I turned into Tylerton, but the way its fictitious residents treat Mae wouldn’t reflect well on it. I invented Coastal Virginia University, too, because I wouldn’t want to attribute a professor like Charlie Tann to any real college.
I’ve sometimes invented houses or businesses because I needed specific architecture to suit the plot rather than because I was avoiding insulting anyone, but in certain cases real locations are the best.
How could I imagine anything as remarkable as Sparky’s Barbecue and Espresso in Hatch, New Mexico? It has crazy local color and live music, and I needed a setting where my protagonist encounters two musicians in a key event that ties three plot lines together in Soul Loss. The eccentricity of Sparky’s décor struck me as a perfect background to frame one of the characters. The establishment’s owner, who knows me as a regular Sunday afternoon blues fan, was happy to let me set a scene there.
In my work in progress (Ghost Sickness, book five in the Mae Martin Series) I set several scenes in Truth or Consequences’ popular coffee shop, Passion Pie Café, with the owner’s enthusiastic permission to employ a character as a barista there as well as to have a little drama take place during the busy breakfast hours. She even gave me a great idea for that scene. I needed Passion Pie because of their wonderful local artist table tops. The mystery revolves around an artist with a secret, and my plot required that his work grace one of those tables. Rio Bravo Fine Art’s owner also let me set scenes there and allowed me to have a fictitious artist exhibit in his gallery. One of T or C’s best-known artists, Delmas Howe, gave me permission to use one of his paintings in the story. It’s great having my New Mexico town come to life in this book.
I had to give Santa Fe a new exotic bird store, though. The owner of Feathered Friends of Santa Fe helped me with my research, and we agreed that I should invent some fictitious competition for her shop, a new and less well-run parrot store, because, well, something happens there. I can’t say what it is. But it involves parrots, two pueblo potters, an Apache cowboy and a struggling photographer, and something illegal. Stay tuned. Ghost Sickness will be released this summer.
Meanwhile, if you’re curious to get started on a mystery series without murders, you can go to Northeastern North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia in The Calling, Santa Fe and Truth or Consequences in Shaman’s Blues, on a road trip across the country in Snake Face, and back to Santa Fe and T or C (and Hatch) in Soul Loss. Just for fun: Mae and Hubert’s house in Tylerton, Bernadette’s tiny Norfolk apartment, and Mae’s pea-soup-green converted trailer in T or C are all places I’ve lived in.