Writing Characters in Real Places and Spaces

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Talk about the setting of your book. Is it entirely imaginary or is it based on a real-life place?

I love writing stories that allow readers to tap into the fantasy and escapism that fiction provides. At the same time, I like to include points of reference from my environment. Similar to integrating real-life characters experience, my story plots also contain geographical references to position readers in characters’ environments, potentially essential to reinforce arches and allow them to relate.

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Settings in the romance genre tend to be at economic and geographic extremes. At a Popular Cultural Association conference, romance scholar Jodi McAllister pointed out that romance plots frequently unfold between female protagonists and rich men in cities or small-town bearded hunks.  She posed a question asking why people didn’t seem to fall in love in the suburbs. She made a great point. I spent my teens and early adult life reading about ridiculously wealthy men taking their love interests to bed. Not necessarily a bad thing, I enjoyed the escapism, but not everyone lives like that way, nor do they exist in tiny towns with one traffic light. I want my readers to see themselves in my stories.

I set my romance characters in a variety of professions and living situations. Protagonists must work for a living and traverse familiar spaces. In the Brothers in Law series, instead of the typical Manhattan highrise settings, live in historically Black Harlem and gentrified Brooklyn. At the beginning of  My Way to You, the main character Simon meets his best friend Marcus at Sylvia’s after returning home from law school.  Simon and his love interest Regina grew up in the less “sexy” Queens and suburban Suffolk County on Long Island, respectively.

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I centered suburban life in the Open to Love novella series. I feature the stomping grounds of Long Island, New York residents, including the lifeline Long Island Expressway and halal restaurants like Nazar.  One reader loved that moved away from city landmarks.

I loved that the setting was my home (Long Island) There were several subtle hints and clues to that throughout. – Open to Love reader

I am unsure if I will ever build a new world completely remote from mine. I even ground my paranormal works-in-progress in it. Some may consider it lazy. I don’t. Environment influences storytelling. Writers using it offers a connection that deepens vicarious realities and humanity.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Characters in Real Places and Spaces

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  1. I’m planning a series that will be placed in a town that I’m not intimately familiar with. Luckily, I have a contact that lives there who can help me find the locations I want for my story.

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  2. As you say, I think the disparity in Romance Novels extremes makes those ends of things easier to write as stereotypes for both characters and locations than say a Jack and Diane little pink houses romance. One the extremes you have little familiarity and can play that. So that’s lazy. Its also semi lazy to put formula in a full blown dystopia because there are no references that have to ring true. Characters have to live somewhere, eat, get around, and ultimately get into something readers can relate to and it doesn’t matter if it’s a run down gas station in Phoenixville, or a mining colony on Z-721. I mean the bar scene in Star Wars is straight out of name your western.
    Keeping it (semi) real on this end!

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  3. I think that Simon was a guy I could actually know made him so much more compelling as a love interest. It’s so interesting that romance scholars are calling out the economics of the novels. It seems that stories often gravitate toward those ends, even in my genres—convenience? Bias in thinking only rich people are worth speaking of? Anything that doesn’t focus on the wealthy seems to focus on the negative aspects and stereotypes of poverty—Wuthering Heights kinds of poverty porn.

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    1. I agree. It is such a standard in romance, especially for male characters. I called it the “rich men get p***y paradigm” at one presentation. The genre reinforces a lot of privileges and stereotypes. There has been some pushback, but there is still a hunger among readers for the billionaire male love interest, who is often broody.

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