Setting the Scene…Without Naming It

Through the years, I’ve written about the lengths I’ve—happily—gone to in order to make the settings of my novels realistic. (See Setting the Scene and Setting the Scene Act II) As I chronicled, I’ve explored towns and cities in Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania for inspiration, even visiting restaurants and other venues for the sake of authenticity. I know, it’s so difficult to turn research into a vacation, but someone has to do it!

This past year, however, I had a shake-up to my strategy. With a new publisher comes new regulations, and in this case, one of them was that I couldn’t use any trademarked names. In all honesty, I always braced myself for such a standard, but once it finally confronted me, I had to evaluate a lot of my creative decisions.

More than anything, my various locations needed addressed. Thankfully, I could keep names of towns and streets, but those restaurants and stores I “dragged myself to” had to go. To replace them, I could either do the sitcom trick of reimagining the name—would anyone like a bowl of Fortunate Shapes for breakfast?—, or I could go with the generic, restaurant or store. I ended up doing a mix of both. Since my other books used real-world names, I didn’t want to get too liberal with tongue-in-cheek monikers, but I did when circumstances called for it.

I didn’t run into any major issues with Brother of Interest, but I can’t say the same with Wrong Line, Right Connection, which comes out later this year. I set it in Louisville, Kentucky, the actual hometown of my friend who inspired the story. Since I started the novel a month into the pandemic, I couldn’t travel there ahead of writing it. Even if I had, though, the plot takes place sixty years ago, so I couldn’t have enjoyed a truly authentic experience.

Because of those factors, I researched unlike ever before. I hit the jackpot, finding a book all about Louisville’s historical restaurants. It included details about the dining experience at each place, as well as their signature dishes. I burst with excitement and pride over the detailed, genuine narrative I could impart to my readers.

But then I couldn’t use any of their names.

In truth, it deflated me at first, as I felt all my efforts were wasted. Eventually, however, I realized the research equipped me to invite the reader into the setting, regardless of whether I named it or not. I could still include most of the specifics, which enhanced the scenes even more than just a name would have. Between that and the time period itself, I learned how much choosing a famous name or figure can become a crutch, blinding you from employing straight-up creativity.

When somebody calls on you to readjust a long-held technique, it’s a challenge and can quickly turn you resistant. If you fight that tendency and pivot, you’ll reap rewards. We never learn anything if we simply stick to the pattern we’ve cut over and over again. If someone gives us some new scissors along with a different design, let’s take a crack at it. It may just turn out to be our favorite one yet.  

Also See

The Education of Writing

The Book the Blog Wrote

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