Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Guest Jim Jackson on a Road Trip

I'd like to welcome Jim to my Travels again today. He was one of my first Guppy critiquers and, years later, followed me to become the president of that incredibly helpful group. Here he talks about using location in fiction.

First, here's a bit about him and his successful mystery series:
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. ANT FARM, BAD POLICY, CABIN FEVER, and DOUBTFUL RELATIONS (8/23/16). Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the open spaces of Georgia’s Lowcountry. He is the current president of the 600+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find information about Jim and his books at

Taking Fictional Characters on a Road Trip

One of the great divides in the writing community occurs in choosing locations for their stories. Some prefer the freedom of creating their own communities where every street, every business, every stop sign is there because they created it. Some of them do such a great job that I want to visit, if only I could. Those authors are concerned with consistency. Even if they don’t remember there is a left-turn-only lane going from Broad to Main, their readers will, and if it disappears in a later book, the author will hear about it.

Other authors prefer to set their stories in real places, with perhaps a few modifications so bodies don’t turn up in real businesses. Many readers get a charge when they’ve been to a location used in the book. It shares a communal bond between them, the author, and the characters. But woe to the author who has the sun directly in the eyes of a character driving on what locals know is a north-south street. A hot email is about to arrive.

Some authors blend the two. Louise Penny comes to mind as one who created the village of Three Pines that so many want to visit but also uses actual places in cities like Quebec. As an aside, I visited Quebec City this summer with one of our granddaughters, and she chose to tour the Morrin Centre. I walked in having totally forgotten about its role in Penny’s Bury Your Dead and was transported back to the story. That’s the power of real locations.

The Seamus McCree novels use (mostly) real locations and for Doubtful Relations I decided to have Seamus and his mother take a road trip. Some people are happy to research settings using the internet. I prefer visiting the places I use. When you read about Seamus’s home in Cincinnati, or the hotel he stays in Columbia, SC, or Tybee Island near Savannah, or North Carolina’s Outer Bank, or the hills and train stations of New Jersey, (all of which are in Doubtful Relations), I’ve been there, quite possibly with my camera to keep my memory accurate. 


Personal visits do not solve all problems. For example, a beta reader sent me an urgent note that a Cincinnati restaurant I used for a scene no longer exists—in fact the building has been torn down. I actually knew that, and fortunately Doubtful Relations is set a few years in the past, when the restaurant did exist.

So readers, what about you? Do you prefer real locations or a well-crafted fictional locale? And how do you respond when you find a factual error in a novel?

Jim's latest!

Financial crimes investigator Seamus McCree has wife problems, and Lizzie’s not even his wife anymore. Her current husband disappeared while traveling, and Lizzie turns to Seamus for help.

Equal parts road trip, who done what, and domestic thriller, Doubtful Relations takes psychological suspense to a new level. Seamus McCree fans and newcomers alike will delight in this fast-paced novel that leaves no one in the family unchanged and keeps you guessing until the very end.


  1. I'm ready for the next one!!

  2. My WIP is set in a real location. The task for me is to not have a bad thing happen in a real location that I've identified. Those sites are simply "park" or "restaurant." Thanks for the blog. It reminded me how careful I have to be with making some things ambiguous. Good luck with sales on your latest in the series. Marilyn (aka cj petterson)

  3. Don't care which as long as I feel like I am there.
    I read a book featuring a beloved PI by a favorite writer who had one of the characters catch a bus that went one block and then made a left turn. It was a bus I took frequently and I knew you had to change at that corner. Though I met the author, I never told her.
    One of the fun things for me is to walk the distances my characters walk. I did move a few houses around but otherwise stuck to the real layout. In Case Book of Emily Lawrence both Cambridge and Washington are as they were in the later half of the 19th century, well, as near as I could make them.

  4. Thanks for coming by, Dottie, cj, and KB. I do the same, cj, make up the places for the bad stuff to happen. KB, I just finished an otherwise stellar thriller by a Very Famous Author who put Malmstrom AFB in ND. It was still in MT when we lived there and I suspect it didn't move. I'll probably never say anything about that, but it sure made me stop reading for awhile! I suspect a lot of other readers will notice it, too, since anyone from that part of the world will know where it is.

  5. All of my Sticks Hetrick mysteries save one take place in the fictional community of Swatara Creek, PA, though my characters often visit Harrisburg, the nearby capitol city. The exception to the primary location was book five, which was split between Sticks activities (including murder) aboard a cruise ship and what was happening back home in his absence.

  6. That's a good compromise, JR. I've used small towns and usually renamed them, but one publisher wanted me to use a real town place, so that one stayed. There hadn't been a murder there in about 100 years, but I was horrified that one occurred right after my book came out!

  7. Thanks cj -- yep, lots can happen in parks and no one is upset.

    KB -- You do have a bit more liberty with historical towns, but not much since experts will be sure to let you know if you mess up.

    Kaye -- Your example is one which I always expect should have been caught by the copy editor, but I do see more of them slip through. Jan and I were both reading a new book in a famous series and a town "moved" from southeast of Des Moines, Iowa to the southwest. & Kaye, that murder wasn't a copycat murder was it?

    JR -- lots of folks take the approach that you do and it works quite well.

  8. No, Jim, nothing like my murder(s). It was a young, probably abused woman killing the BF or husband, I forget which. Very sad.

  9. The road trip in "Doubtful Relations" is quite a ride. Don't miss this fast-paced book. The scenery goes whizzing by.

  10. Enjoyed your post. I like both real and make believe. I preferred real in my debut novel, which made it easy to describe the settings for each scene and readers would know they could go there and see what I'd described. Problem was I set it on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and after all my work was done with describing scene settings, Hurricane Katrina hit the area and changed it all. As a result my entire series is now set starting right before Hurricane Katrina and will go through that Hurricane again and then the years afterward. My second book I chose to mix some real with mostly made-up settings. I hope it works.

  11. Real events do get in the way, don't they? I set my Fat Cat shop on a real street and used a lot of the surrounding real stores and restaurants. However, some renovation has been done there and the reader might not recognize the place now!

  12. Linda & Kaye -- that is a problem with real locations: that once was is no longer. I've made a bit of lemonade out of those lemons by having my protag, seamus McCree, actually note in later books things that have changed since earlier books. It sure sounds like your solution should work Linda.

  13. That's an excellent solution, Jim. I'll remember that.

  14. I wanted to place my last story in a real city but I couldn't find one that fit my needs so I created my own. In general I like writing and reading stories set in real places.

    When I catch an error, I don't usually email, just roll my eyes and silently chide the author.

  15. I like both, I guess. If a series makes a fictional place real to me, that's fun. I never email either, LD. I remember, though!