Location is everything, as the saying goes. But is this true in your novel? On our most recent First Draft Friday, we invited bestselling author Maria Luis onto the set to talk about how to use setting in your novel.
Maria has a colorful history. Before becoming a novelist, she wrote scripts for tour companies in New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah and more. She’s used to interweaving history and locations into her storytelling and was the perfect guide to take us down this path.
Keep reading to see a summary of her main points about the importance of location, or go straight to the good stuff and watch the following video.
Creating a location — should it be fictional or real?
As authors, we’re used to creating fictional worlds and characters. But should our locations be the same?
There are some positives to using a real-life location. A romance set in Paris immediately gives the reader a feel for that book. Other readers may gravitate toward or hunt for books set in a certain locale. They enjoy having stories rooted in settings and cultures they are familiar with, have visited or lived in.
But fictional towns can give you some creative freedoms. Maybe you want to write a Christmas story in a town that celebrates the holidays 365 days a year. Or you need an island with an abandoned city on it. Creating your own town allows you to alter the weather, layout, culture and location to fit your exact story needs.
Whether you create your own location or use an actual one, research is still key to bringing your location to life. Maria suggests Google Street View as a way to walk through a town you’ve never visited. Creating a fictional town? Find a real-life location as a muse, then tweak it to fit your needs. Draw a map of the town, so you can be consistent in your descriptions and delivery. And take the history of the town into account as you describe the architecture, layout and feel.
Once in the story, use your characters to remind readers of the setting with sound, tastes and feels. The crunch of snow beneath your boots as your hero steps onto the cobblestoned road. The smell of barbecue drifting from an open doorway of a restaurant in Texas. The sound of roosters crowing on a Key West street. It doesn’t take much to breathe life into your location and use it as a strong element in your storytelling.
See the video embedded above for all of Maria’s suggestions during this information-packed half hour!
If you’re interested in watching more author chats, please visit our First Draft Friday page. And, if you’re ready to see Maria’s use of location for yourself, visit BingeBooks.com to see her full list of books.
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Transcript of my conversation with Maria Luis
Alessandra: Hello everyone. This is First Draft Friday, and I am so excited to be joined today by Marie Luis. We are going to be talking all about location in your novel and how you can use it. I’m super pumped for today because this is a weak point of mine personally so I’ll be drilling you as we go. But if you are watching live, please feel free to shout out in the comments section any questions that you have, we’re going to be taking questions and comments as we go. And we’re going to have you guys in and out in 30 minutes. So if you are listening to our podcast or on YouTube or Facebook group, please consider subscribing and sharing this with your friends. So, we’re going to dive right in. Maria, can you tell everyone about your books and about you a little bit so they know where you’re coming from?
Maria: Hey, there you all. I’m Maria Luis. I live in New Orleans. I’m a romance author. And one of the reasons I’m so big on using the setting as kind of like a secondary character, like really bringing it to life is because in a previous life of mine, I was a tour guide. So I was a tour guide in England. I’ve also been in tour guide in New Orleans, and then fast forward as a historian, I was the one who would… I would write all of the scripts for the cities that were in New Orleans, Charleston and San Antonio. And as I was leaving to start publishing, we opened in Charleston as well. So, I am really big on like, how do you bring in the location to make it something that like, people are like sitting there being like, I really want to visit. And even if it’s a fictional town, like, where’s the region, and like why do people want to go to that one spot because they just love the vibe that you’ve created. So, is a big thing for me and I really enjoy it.
Alessandra: I love that. I recently, a traditionally published book, I had originally written it in a small mountain town, like in North Carolina and the editor wanted to move the setting to California. And I didn’t realize how much it would really change the whole feel of the story. And it was the right move, like it was the right move for that book, but it was so funny. Like my beta readers that read the first version, and then the final version they’re like, wow, I wouldn’t think that changing the location would change the feel of the book so much, but it really did. So yeah, I’m really excited to chat about this. So when you are writing… I know you have tips and things you’re going to move through, so actually, I’m going to hold my question till the end, so take us away.
Maria: All right, the kind of the way that I’ve kind of like styled the next few minutes or whatever is like thinking big scale and then moving down to the details. So, like big and then small, like a little cone. The first thing you super want to think about is, is your town, your area going to be section, or is it going to be based on a real-life city? And the reason I kind of mentioned that is because I think a lot of times people think that like, if you’re doing a fictional town, like you can… there’s so many good small town romances. Like I can name a bunch off the top of my head, where if you look at Bootleg Springs from Lucy Score or Claire Kingsley, like Bootleg Springs is like, you’re like, Oh my God, I know this place it’s in West Virginia. It doesn’t exist, but you feel as though it does exist.
But there are a lot of times where if it’s a fictional town, there’s like some pitfalls where it’s kind of like, okay, I’ll just like kind of skirt by the surface, but I’m not really going to dig, dig too deep into it. And on the flip side, sometimes if it’s a real-life city, I think a lot of people are like say based in New York City; the characters just seem to jump from like one interior of a building to another interior of a building and you kind of walk away from like the magic that is New York. And so on both ends, there’s a lot of ways that you can bring it to life, but there are also a lot of ways that you can kind of just… not intentionally, but you’re not digging deep enough to kind of really make it like this juicy, meaty part of the book where people are like, man, that was really, really cool, or they’re looking things up or they’re wanting to find out more about it. So that is definitely like the beginning is, are you doing fictional or are you doing real life? And either way, you should treat it exactly the same so it doesn’t really matter which direction you’re going.
Alessandra: So if you are doing a fictional city, do you suggest having a real city as amused? How do I as an author create like a fictional believable town?
Maria: I personally like to have a fictional version of it. So, in one of my books and Kiss Me Town, it is a fictional town called London, Maine, but it’s based right next to Bar Harbor, Maine, which I’ve visited. I’ve been there multiple times. And I actually, in the book, it says, you know, London is directly next to Bar Harbor, and so, it skirts it. And so, I use Bar Harbors, it’s landscape, it’s architecture; I use all of that in terms of like building it as a place for my version of London, Maine. So I think even if you’re doing a fictional side, it’s really good. You can obviously have creative liberty; that’s like the beauty of making the place of your own. But having inspiration is really helpful to kind of building it out.
And also to think about things like this is the historian in me, but like when was the town founded if you’re creating it. Like, when was it founded? When did it become maybe popular, and you don’t have to be like, I have a character be like, “this place built in 1859 and founded then,” but it will tell you things about the architecture. What is the layout? Are the buildings really close together? So if your co your characters are in your house, or is there not as much light in inside because the town… say it’s townhouses, you’re sandwich in. So you get light from the front light from the back, but not like from the sides. And then you can start playing with like shadows and different things inside the house as well. All of these different things, even though… again, it’s like I don’t really care when the town was found it but I can tell you about the architecture. I can tell you about all of that aspect and that will directly impact your characters in the way that you’re kind of building out those scenes.
Alessandra: That makes sense. And I hope I’m not skipping ahead, but why do you like fictional towns versus real towns? What’s the pro and con of using a fictional town?
Maria: For me, I tend to stick mostly to real cities. I think the one… my book Kiss Me Tonight is the only one that I’ve done in a fictional town and I just like wanted to. Like, I was like, I’ve never done this before; let’s do it. I personally live locally using real-life cities, but I think the bonus to using fictional is that you have the leeway to truly be like, do you want, I don’t know, do you want a square that like in the center where everybody congregates, maybe there’s like barbecues every single Sunday, maybe there’s like a farmer’s market. And like, that’s where your characters meet. You know what I mean? Like, you can really, really structure it to fit your plot and you don’t necessarily have to abide by the rules of like, “no, you can’t put like a farm in the middle.”
I live in New Orleans. You can’t put a farm in the middle of New Orleans. Maybe outskirts, but not in the middle, but if it’s your fictional town, sure, you want to put it in the middle of your town and that’s where your characters have their whiskey distillery, okay, you can absolutely do that. There are no rules whatsoever. And I think that’s the beauty of doing fiction is that you can truly build it out to fit your needs while still kind of thinking about how all of that is going to impact your characters and how you’re describing things.
Alessandra: Yeah, that’s a really great point because just with you talking, I was thinking, oh yeah, like you could have a town that was obsessed with daschunds. And so like they have a festival for it and everything else and maybe it’s hard to find an actual town like that, but yeah.
Maria: Yeah, but like if you’re creating it. There are truly no rules, and so you can make it to be whatever you need it in your series or your standalone or whatever you’re particularly writing, and I think that’s like the beauty side of it.
Alessandra: Makes perfect sense. All right, go ahead. Thank you.
Maria: Of course, so I also wanted to briefly talk about… another thing is even if you’re doing… especially if you’re doing real life cities, I think that there’s something fun about adding in real locations into your book. So obviously if it’s a restaurant, you can’t, generally speaking be like, oh, you know, I’m just going to use New Orleans because it’s in my head. Like, you can’t be like, Oh, they went to Antwan’s, which is like the oldest family run restaurant in the entire country because Antwan’s might have a problem; you know what I mean? But you can truly describe it, you can bring it to life, and then in the back of the book, I always have a, I call it a dear fabulous reader section, and it like suits my tour guide needs. And I list out all the places that I’ve used in the book, and each book becomes like a mini little tour guide section where people are researching like, “Oh, that place is really cool. Oh, if I ever go to London, I want to go here, here, here because I read about it in her book.” And I’ve had a lot of people do that.
They come to New Orleans, and they’ve gone to the places that I’ve discussed in my books, and that really boils down to because you’ve taken the time to really pull it together. If it’s fictional, I think it’s really cool to talk sometimes more regional things. So like, if it’s in North Carolina, you’re talking about like the Blue Mountains or like West Virginia, like, what are… maybe there are some traditions that happen there that you could incorporate into your book in some way. Perhaps you could talk about different aspects, like is it really darker during like the winter time versus the summertime? Like, these are all different little detail-oriented stuff, but it makes it when you’re… as we are storytellers, it makes it that people kind of like, they get like that hungering inside that they’re like, Oh, that looks really cool. And if they’re thinking about like taking a vacation; how do you make them want to go where you’ve created it? And if it’s a fictional town, maybe the inspiration that inspired your town, or maybe just the section of where it is. So, that’s one thing that I always like to talk about is like, how do you make people hunger for the place that you’ve created or that you’ve set your book and how you make them want to go there?
So that is like one of the things, and then I also want to talk about maps and layouts and blueprints, so this is really cool. This is really important I think if you’re doing fictional. I think you can use pretty much anything. But I use “The Writer’s Plotting Workbook” by L.R. Ryan. It’s awesome. So, the beginning has like important dates so you can like map out, so let me try to like find it with the sun. You can map out like, when do you need to start the book to when do you need to finish the book for the release date? It has like overall plotting all of that. One of the reasons I like it for like creating a world is they have a lot of location and setting sections, so you can like map out whatever you need
Alessandra: It sounds like fun.
Maria: And then down at the bottom, like there’s space, so it’s like what are you talking about and like there’s a bunch of different pages so I think there’s probably a bunch of different versions like this, in terms of like books like this. And then in the back, of course, there’s like a lot of like character stuff, so you can…
Alessandra: Develop your characters.
Maria: But I really use a fresh book for each book. Yeah, so I use a fresh book. I’m not a plotter, I’m definitely a pantser, but I really liked to use this in terms of like, making sure that I can, I have an idea in my head, like how long does it take them if they’re going from the bar to the house, how long will that take them? What are they seeing? And especially if it’s fictional, it gives you the kind of the opportunity to like lay it out. On the town center, if you’re looking at the town center, like, what are the businesses that might surround it? Or what are like, if you… and maybe there’s like a seaside kind of drive that you can go around, and so, yeah, it’s helpful.
Alessandra: Before you move into maps, I just wanted to put this question from Ellie. What about using a real life city, but adding fictional aspects to it, as in keeping some landscape features, but creating fictional places to visit?
Maria: Absolutely. Actually, one of my favorite things to do is… I’m a history buff, so I love architecture; it’s like one of my favorite things ever. So, a lot of times I’ll find a location that I think is beautiful. If it’s a real-life city, like I’ll be like, “That is a beautiful place’ and I will take it and then use it to my purpose. So it might in the real world, and maybe it’s a library, but in my world it’s like someone’s home. In the book I’m currently writing, they visit this beautiful square, not a square, it’s almost like an entire block in London. It is gorgeous and it’s part of a hotel, but in my world it’s someone’s mansion. And so, I can’t go in, obviously, so in the interior is like my own brain and like what I think inside it would look like. But if someone’s visiting, it’s fictional in terms of what I’ve done to it, even though the building itself does exist and people can go visit that. So yeah, I think it’s absolutely great to use fictional… like adding fictional aspects, especially if it’s places that people can pinpoint and they’re like, “Whoa, that happened there.” And even again, you probably use it in a different way than it is actually in real life, but it’s still really cool to be able to do that.
Alessandra: I guess that’s like in Friends, they had the Central Park or whatever fictional coffee shop, but that show still very much felt like New York. So when you’re discussing, like creating a restaurant that’s just like Cafe Du Monde or whatever; do you give it a fake name or do you just not refer to it by name?
Maria: If it’s a place like Cafe Dumonde, which for those who don’t know; Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans has been around for like 200 years. It is a landmark; I will often just say Cafe Du Monde. Or if I’m doing say like St. Louis Cathedral, I will just say they walked past cathedral, but some oftentimes if it’s a landmark I would describe it.
Alessandra: You’d give it a name.
Maria: Unless they’re just passing it. If they’re passing a restaurant, I will use the name. If it is a place that I may… so, for the best example was in one of my suspense books. I wanted to use… I went to Loyola university in New Orleans, but I want you to use Tulane because I was using the president of Tulane because he’s like one of the villains, and so I described it, but I gave it its own name. Like the university’s own name; I did not use Tulane University because I didn’t want to be sued. So, it’s kind of like it’s like that little bit of a balance. If you think that if they were to find out, and it’s not just them walking past, like just like meandering, if it’s like part of your entire world plot, and if you don’t think that they would like that publicity; give it its own name. Even if you think that it’s like, “Oh no, that’d be really cool for them.” If they picked it up and saw that they’ve mentioned your restaurant because like they sat there for dinner; I would totally use it. I would totally use the real name. So it was just kind of like figuring out which end of the aisle you fit on.
Alessandra: I wrote a sports romance about the Yankees, the Yankees were like a very integral part of it. It was set in New York and they work, you know, it was baseball romance. We brought in an attorney and asked, can we use the Yankees with pinstripes, and the attorney said we could use the Yankees. First of all, it’s like cafe Dumont. It’s such a household name that at this point, it’s like a celebrity. You can name a celebrity as long as you’re not defaming that celebrity or it’s like in passing and they’re not a character in your book. But they said as long as you’re only talking nicely about the Yankees and you’re not saying anything that, you know, defames them as an organization, then it’s okay and you’re not using them to sell the book. So you can put Cafe Dumont on your back, cover coffee, and I can’t put the trademarked Yankee logo anywhere, but especially not on the front of my book or anything else, but yeah. If it’s a bad restaurant in the book, you don’t want to use a real restaurant’s name.
Maria: If it’s like a one-star restaurant, don’t do that. I also wanted to bring up the mention to you when you’re looking at maps, whether doing fictional or real life; I think it’s sometimes really important to think about street names because even just something as simple as that, or like, you know, they are in the car and they pass by the library, you know, but like give the library a names. So again, fictional or real, it doesn’t matter. I think like they both play a part because what you’re trying to do with the setting and the location is to cement it in reality. So whether or not people have visited and you’re giving them then… if it’s a real place you’re giving them landmarks they may have seen, or that they may see when they go. And if it’s fictional, you’re trying to cement it in reality so it feels like they could… they’re going to look it up. Like, did this place actually exist? Like, can I visit here, so either way.
So I think like things like street names, things like naming the… again, I’m just using the library for example, but like using the library or doing like a grocery store; giving all these things an actual name, as opposed to just like a generic, Oh, they went to the grocery store. Like if there’s a bar that they go to… obviously, generally speaking, if it’s a bar, they go to often you might give it a name. But yeah, so like how do you cement in reality and that’s kind of what you’re thinking about, which leads directly into like the next point. It’s kind of like all in the details, and I think that is where you go from placing a book where it could almost be placed anywhere to giving it like a really firm feeling.
So one of the things I love to know is… one thing that I like to do is like, think about the region and this works for a regional or real city. So, in one of my books, for example, the area of town that the character lives is like, there are all these sycamore trees in that area. So, if she’s looking out of her window, she’s seeing Sycamore trees, right, she’s not seeing like Oak or Magnolia. Or think about even pieces like are they pushing open a door? In that area, that region, what are the most common types of wood that you might find there? So they’re pushing open an Oak door, or maybe they’re pushing open a pine door or the floor. Is it more likely that they’ll have pine there, if they’re in the Northeast or they’re more likely to have kind of like a… down here, then we’ll have Cypresswood because Cypress is way more popular here so you might have really nice houses will have Cypresswood instead of like hardwood floor instead of like Oak or cherry or something like that. And so, these are all different little details that really, really, I feel like push it to the next level.
Or even thinking weather, right, like we always say like, okay, it’s weather. In New Orleans, for example, I think I had read one book and I don’t remember the name and I wouldn’t say it anyway, but they had placed it into Willens and it was summertime. And they said that the character was chilly and I was like no. Like in the summer here…
Alessandra: You know they never, ever, no matter what freakish weather is going on isn’t chilly.
Maria: You will sweat the minute you go outside. I don’t wear makeup in the summer because it will slide off your face no matter what you do to yourself. So these are like little things that like, especially, and I will say this too; if you’re using a real-life city or a real life, like you’re placing it, say, I don’t know in like the lowlands, kind of like in the low country for like Charleston, South Carolina. If someone picks up your book, a lot of times people will search out a book because they’re from there or they visited there. And so they want… like, they want to capture those moments that they felt maybe they lived there in their childhood or they’ve gone there on vacation 15 times. And so, you don’t want to ever also give them a reason for them to pause and be like…
Alessandra: It takes them out of reality. Like it reminds them that this is a book.
Maria: Reminds them that this is a book. So you want to think about… like, it sounds so cheesy, but you really do want to think about like the senses. So, what are they seeing? What are they stepping on? Again, like what type of hardwood floor or what type of tile would they be standing on what? Is the weather feel like on their skin? What does it feel like in New Orleans? Again, it’s very wet here in the summertime, and so it’s like a sort of wet heat that sits in your lungs. So if you’re running, it’s really hard to run here in the summer because you feel that your lungs can’t expand enough to like make it. So even if you had like an action scene here in the summertime, if they’re running, they’re not just running, like, think about how that weather is impacting them as they’re moving. And so these are all, again, like different little things that it’s the details that are sometimes more than just saying like, oh, they live in New York City or sometimes they’re doing it. Oh, Rhonda had a good question, I see…
Alessandra: This one?
Maria: Yeah. How do you manage your time with respect to research? So what I do in the beginning and I can actually… I have my writing notebook. I have this plotting notebook that I use and that’s for like basics, it’s kind of like a series Bible that I use. And then I have like my notebook, which is like, it’s complete; there’s not a single page that’s available, and then this is where I put all of my research that I find because I’m not someone… I don’t like to put it on a computer. I don’t know why. I just like plotting.
Alessandra: Plotting in my mind or on paper? Everyone’s creative process is different.
Maria: I can’t do it otherwise, so I try to not let myself get in a tangle over it. So in the beginning before I start actually writing, I will look up, again, most of the time I’m using real life locations. But if you’re using fictional, like this is something I would recommend definitely doing before you start; do some basic research on the population of the town or the town you’re envisioning, what are the streams that are nearby? Because like another thing, you could have a fictional town, but it a real life stream goes past it or a real life river goes past it because then you’ve taken your fictional place and cemented it into reality of wherever it is. And so, you can then kind of pinpoint.
I try to like do the big stuff before I sit down to write so I already know what I’m going to do. But if I am doing, like, if I am placing that chapter in a specific location and I need to go find it; I’ll take like 30 minutes and I will sit down and kind of like hammer out what they’re doing. And one of the things we’ll talk about in the next part is like tips and tricks but I can just say it right now. The things that are going to be your best friends are like Google Maps, Street Views, local travel guide books, you can also go onto YouTube and you can… there’s so many, like if you’re looking at a specific, I don’t know, say you’re looking at something in the Highlands and you’re placing it in Drumnadrochit because they’re going to Loch Ness, you know, like you can go look up and watch a 10-minute video about Drumnadrochit so you can see what it actually looks like or what the path might be if they’re walking from Loch Ness and going over so you’ll be able to kind of like pin it.
I do the big leg of the work before I begin writing. But again, if I’m doing a particular scene and I need to have it appear somewhere, I will go and do that research before I begin that scene, and I will not do it for two hours. Like I set a time limit of kind of like, what are the big points? I start with Google Maps so I can see what they’re seeing. So in one of my books, they’re running as suspense, so they’re running away and she turns, and they’re on this road in London called Mild End Road, and in the distance, you see The Shard. I saw that on Google Maps, trotting along, what are the path they’re taking from one spot to the other, and I panned it to the right and saw The Shard so then I included that in my book because then, it feels more than just like she turned and there was The Shard on the horizon.
And so, someone who is from London will be like, “Oh wow, I know exactly where they are.” Or like, “I know exactly what part of town they’re in.” And someone who’s not been there, they can either maybe pause and like look at it for a second or either way it makes it feel like you’re like sitting there. So I use Google Maps Street View; it is my best friend, like 100%. If it’s in New Orleans, I live here all the time; I don’t need to do it. If it’s a city I’ve like lived in, like I’ve lived in New York, England so I don’t need to do Google Maps. I visited London multiple times, but I don’t live there, so I’ll sit in Google Maps and do it. So, Google Maps…
Alessandra: Do you feel like you should only write about cities that you have been to, or do you think I could write anything; London and I’ve never been to London?
Maria: You can write about anything. I think as long as you do the research to really think about like, what are the places that are maybe highlights that you want to see or you want to again, you’re like, I want to set it in this one neighborhood that you lived in. Like, I set a pub that is in my series that I’m writing right now. I set it in the East end in White Chapel because right next to Christchurch because I went there on the Jack the Ripper tour and I thought it was fricking awesome. And I was like, I want it right here because I went on this Jack the Ripper tour. You know what I mean? And so, then I built it out, and if people read it, they’ll never know that I don’t live there or that I’ve built it from Google Maps.
Alessandra: It feels authentic.
Maria: It feels authentic. So, that’s kind of like what you want to do. And always, yes, set a time limit. You don’t want to spend like three hours on it when you need to be putting words down on the page.
Alessandra: All right. We only have, well, a few minutes left, so is there anything urgent that you want to share or any tips and tricks that you want to run through,
Maria: Yeah, those were the highlights. Like I said, Google Maps, using YouTube will be your best friend, especially if you’re not familiar with a place and you can’t like really dig in. That’s a good place to start as well because you can just find the videos. There’s so many people that have done like tours of like random locations and you can just type it in and like spend five minutes and like look at it. Or using travel tour guide, like travel guide books, which most of them are online nowadays, like top 10 things to do in Charleston. You know what I mean? You don’t even have to like go buy a travel guide. But those are different things that I think are really, really helpful on a big view, but also on a tiny, detailed view of what you’re looking at.
Alessandra: I love this. We have one last question from Camilla. She says; are you using Scrivener? Do you write in Scrivener?
Maria: I write in Word. I’m like super old-fashioned. I’ve never even touched Scrivener; Word is my happy place.
Alessandra: I use Scrivener, and I do know it has some really great like bulletin board areas where you can put pictures of inspiration and things like that. Again, a lot of us… I saw another comment that they like pen and paper too, but Scrivener is a great tool if you’re looking for that. But, we are out of time, so I appreciate everybody joining us live. This First Draft Friday was brought to you by Authors AI. If you’re interested in having Marlowe our artificial intelligence run your manuscript through and give you fantastic advice on its plot, pasting and characters; check out authors.ai. We will be back in two weeks with another great First Draft Friday so I will see you all soon. If you are following us and watching on podcast or YouTube; please subscribe, otherwise, we’ll see you guys in two weeks. Bye guys. Thanks Maria.
Maria: Thank you.