My murder mysteries take place in Blossom Valley, a small town just over the hill from Mendocino. Now Mendocino is a real town on the West coast of Northern California. Just watch any episode of Murder, She Wrote and you'll spot the town in the opening credits. And with Blossom Valley being so close, many people will wonder if it's really a cover for Boonville. Or perhaps Willits. But neither is correct. Blossom Valley exists only in my mind, based loosely on the Ukiah of my youth but brought up-to-date with coffee shops and wine stores. And perhaps those businesses are open in Ukiah now (it's been a while since I visited -- sorry, Mom!), but the town itself has grown too large. I need a much smaller place. And that's where fictional towns come in.
Part of the reason I chose a fictional place is that I'm lazy. When I'm writing and caught up in the plot, I don't want to stop and pull up the Google maps, make sure State Street really intersects with Orchard Street, that the hardware store is next to the flower shop. The other reason is that no town contains the exact businesses, parks, and layout that I'm looking for. At least not a town I'm familiar with. What if I want a nudie bar next to a church? Or a statue of Porky Pig in the town square?
So I created a new place. Sure, the major components are based on existing towns and cities I'm familiar with, but Blossom Valley is a mishmash of multiple places with new businesses added, existing businesses taken away. When I need a bar with animal heads for ambience down by a lake, I first create a lake in my imaginary town, and then I throw in a bar. No fuss, no muss.
Of course, by using a fictional town, I am solely responsible for keeping track of how the town is laid out. Which is why I found myself with a sheet of grid paper and a pen last weekend, drawing a map of Blossom Valley to make sure my descriptions are accurate. And how do I know if I've remembered to draw all the streets? Maybe I added one little sentence about a dentist office down on Pearl Avenue, only to never mention it again. I might accidentally put the post office in that same location. I'll know for sure when a reader tells me (assuming my book is someday published) in a tersely worded missive that makes it clear just how disappointed that person is with my obvious lack of attention to detail. Readers always notice these things.
Which is why I occasionally envy a member of my writing group. She's opted to set her mystery in a real city in the Bay Area. The vineyard and nearby ranch are fictional spots, but the rest of the city exists. She makes sure her descriptions exactly match the layout of the city, going so far as to drive the streets to record the correct mileage. And when she wants to create a scene in the police station, she can visit the station herself, take in the sights and sounds, and then provide an authentic description in her books. A definite advantage. She doesn't find herself scrolling back through previous chapters, trying to find that description of the Main Street Café to see if the inside is done in a 50's diner style or an 80's rock style. She's eaten at the restaurants mentioned in her book. She remembers exactly how the places look, inside and out. But she's also limited by what exists. If she chooses to add a fictional business in a real town, people will get upset. Again, readers keep track. They'll send letters, pointing out what they assume was a mistake rather than use of her creative license.
Both real and fictional locations have their pros and cons. And authors often struggle with the choice. I know I did. But as the plot progressed, I realized a fictional town was the best option for my books. I just hope the readers agree.