Setting the setting for your fiction

28 Feb
Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

— Marcel Proust

Some authors use fictitious settings for their novels and short stories; some use the real thing. I do both. Which works best when?

In the four linked short stories in my mystery collection Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012), I do both. Toronto and Goderich (the latter in the story “Saving Grace”) are real, albeit set back in 1999. But for the main location where the fraternal twin PIs, Dana Bowman and Bast Overture live and work, I use a fictitious small city, Thurston, approximately 30 miles north of Toronto. Thurston is a combination of Aurora and Newmarket, two small cities just north of Toronto, and Guelph, Ontario.

Why did I use this combo for setting?

I chose a fictitious place for the stories here and in the prequel novel because:

  1. I wanted the combination for various features unique to each. Guelph (which I have visited in the past) is for the lake. But I lived in Aurora for 23 years to late 1998 so am familiar with a lot of what Aurora was like then. Newmarket is barely three miles up the highway from Aurora (now they are practically joined with urban sprawl and strip plazas so bad that if you want to meet someone at McDonald’s you have to specify which Mcdonald’s).  So here I was going on the familiar.
  2. Aurora nd Newmarket are part of York Region and the police force there is York Regional. I base the police force in the twins ‘stories on York Regional but call it Cooks Regional Force (and the region is obviously Cooks Region). I do this so I don’t have to be exact with police procedure in York Region in the late 1990s, but make sure any police procedure is the way it was in police departments during that time. I have a police consultant who is also a published mystery (police procedure) author as well as a working police constable. Some police equipment used then surprises me – such as wiretapping –big reel-to-reel tape machines that had to be turned on manually when recording, for example, calls from kidnappers. That made for some tricky sequences as how to set it up in my prequel novel. Toronto Police and the Ontario Provincial Police (as you can see in “Saving Grace”) are “themselves.” I didn’t want to create fiction to the ridiculous,
  3. Place names and street names. One of my mystery-novel-writing colleagues uses real streets in Toronto, but makes the numbers higher than the actual streets. I use a mixture of fact and fiction. For Thurston, Ontario, addresses are made-up. But, from my past living experience in Aurora/Newmarket, they resemble somewhat what is there – not the Mini-Mall though, and not The Attic Investigative Agency, which the twins operate from the attic level of their old house. That house is actually based on a number of houses I’ve seen or been in: the outside comes from an old three-story house, complete with balconies and turrets, I saw and photographed in downtown, London, Ontario. The inside of the twins’ house is based on a one a late aunt and uncle lived in (Toronto) when I was growing up, plus other houses I’ve seen the inside of doing interviews for stories as a journalist or house hunting. In other stories, I use real places but may not name them. For example, in “Missing in Action” I have a murder occur behind a real church (including the real location) but don’t name the church. In “Porcelain Doll” I use the real town of Hanover (among other real towns and cities) but don’t name the antique ahop there. And as a good part of “Porcelain Doll” is set on a train in the summer of 1965 I make darn sure I have the train layout, etc. accurate. It helps that I rode trains in Ontario and Michigan as a child during that time period and my late Dad worked as a timekeeper for one of the Canadian railways then. But I also did further research – online, from books on the Canadian railways, and files I photocopied from the Ontario Archives.

Why this mix of fact and fiction? I think to protect both the “real thing” and yes, myself. It also give me a bit of leeway when writing. The main thing is what are you comfortable using and will it work? How much research do you want to do (and there is always research as you can see from the above)? And if you are writing fiction based on fact you might want to change the location.

What do you do for settings in your fiction? Fact or fiction or a combination?

And if you click on my book cover above it takes you to my book on


Sharon A. Crawford


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