by Colleen Oakley
“Setting is sometimes a character.” I’ll never forget my 11th-grade English teacher Mrs. Hunter saying that, though I don’t remember which book we were discussing (sorry, Mrs. Hunter!). Was it Wuthering Heights, the titular manor that was as dark, cold and mysterious as its owner Heathcliff? Or maybe it was the river in Huckleberry Finn, propelling the plot forward as quickly as it did Huck’s raft. Regardless, I’ve never felt that phrase so deeply in my own writing as when I wrote The Invisible Husband of Frick Island.
My fictional setting of Frick Island was heavily inspired by Smith Island, a small strip of land smack in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay accessible only by boat. I visited the island twice, once when my grandparents took me as a teenager, and again with my mom for research purposes as I was writing the novel. Both times, I was struck by the simple beauty and serenity of the island, as well as the difficulties that naturally arise by living somewhere so remote.
I knew it would be the perfect setting for my novel, about a widow woman named Piper who lives with the delusion that her dead husband is beside her, every day—and an entire town that loves her so much, they go along with it, going as far as waving to and interacting with a man who does not actually exist.
So why didn’t I set the book on the real Smith Island?
The first, and most important, reason is that it’s a small place with only a few hundred people living there. I did not want anyone on the island—the people that were so kind to host me and answer questions about their way of life—to think I was writing about them.
Freedom to Fictionalize
I needed the layout of my story’s town—and the few businesses there—to suit the needs of my story. For instance, Frick Island houses an antique shop that doesn’t exist on Smith Island. I wanted the Blue Point general store on Frick to be in a different location than the real-life general store on Smith. And I envisioned Frick Island’s Wildlife Center in a remote mobile home, when on Smith Island, it’s actually a beautifully built newer building that houses a museum relating the island’s history.
All of these choices were made with specific scenes in the book in mind. It was freeing to be able to create a map of the town that worked best for my story rather than be limited by the actual layout and businesses on Smith Island.
Suspension of Disbelief
Readers are sticklers for details. If you use a real-life setting, you’d better get the location and names of stores and places of interest in town correct, or you’ll hear about it! But if you fictionalize the setting, then you can have a gas station on a corner where one doesn’t actually exist or rename a church—and you won’t distract readers who know better from staying immersed in your story’s world. (Bonus: You also won’t be subject to e-mails pointing out your “mistakes”—at least, not about the setting, anyway!)
There are some books, obviously, where the real-life setting works best. Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, inspired by her real-life experience of moving to New York City in her twenties, couldn’t have been set anywhere but the Big Apple itself—and she captures the city brilliantly and vividly. In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, we learn so much about the history and life in Kabul, Afghanistan, we feel like we’re there.
But if the actual city you’re setting your novel in isn’t vital to the story, you may want to consider fictionalizing the town and saving yourself—and your readers—from being beholden to the real-life place.
How have you decided between real-life and imagined settings in your own work? Join our discussion on Facebook.
Colleen Oakley is the USA Today bestselling author of You Were There Too, Close Enough to Touch, Before I Go, and The Invisible Husband of Frick Island—on sale now! Order your copy today, or consider seeing Colleen at one of her stops on her virtual and in-person tour.