“How Local Can You Go?” (by Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2020) contains the story “Home for the Holidays,” the EQMM debut of Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an editor and reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio. Andrew is the author of six novels featuring Andy Hayes (the central character of his first EQMM story), a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback turned private eye. The most recent book in the series is Fatal Judgment, which Publishers Weekly called “intriguing,” commenting that “fans of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone books will be pleased.” Andrew is also the editor of Columbus Noir, upcoming in March from Akashic Books and recently named one of CrimeReads’ most anticipated 2020 crime books. Location plays an especially vivid role in this author’s novels and stories, and in this post he discusses some ways in which it can be effectively used.—Janet Hutchings

A few years back I was driving one Sunday through the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, a tony town of big houses and leafy streets that Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas once called home and where golfing great Jack Nicklaus grew up. Passing the Chef-o-Nette, a longtime local eatery, I glanced over and did a double take. The restaurant was closed for the day. My stomach fell. The previous year, I set a scene there in my first novel, Fourth Down And Out, in which my character, private eye Andy Hayes, stops in between assignments for their signature Hangover Plate. Researching the book, I’d dropped by a couple times to be sure I got everything right. And I did, except for that pesky detail that got away: the Chef-o-Nette is never open on Sundays. It’s an error I won’t forget anytime soon, thanks to the readers who have pointed it out along the way.

At least I was in good company, since populating crime fiction with recognizable locations is a time-honored tradition. In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade buys “two sacks of Bull Durham” at a cigar store at the corner of Kearny and Sutter streets, recognized as the real-life Otto’s Corner Store. Later he makes a phone call from the Hotel Sutter across the street, still standing today as the Galleria Park Hotel. Fast forward a few decades and Robert B. Parker paid homage to Massachusetts eateries such as the Agawam Diner in Rowley, Mass., which his Boston-based private eye, Spenser, described as “the world’s greatest restaurant” in Back Story.

More recently, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has eaten his way across Los Angeles via some of L.A.’s most iconic restaurants and diners, including Hollywood’s century-old Musso & Frank Grill where Bosch orders sand dabs and sourdough bread with detective Renee Ballard in The Night Fire. (The same restaurant makes an appearance in L.A. writer Paul Marks’s novella Vortex.) Laura Lippman references so many favorite Baltimore locales in her Tess Monaghan series—begging for a slice of Matthew’s Pizza in The Girl In The Green Raincoat, for examplethat when the annual Bouchercon mystery convention was held in Baltimore in 2008 it included a self-guided tour of Lippman’s Baltimore. In Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh crime novels, Detective Inspector John Rebus is a regular at Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar “with an IPA in his hand and his feet resting on the rail.” (In a case of art imitating life imitating art, Rankin had misremembered the setting, as the bar didn’t have such a rail. No problem: landlord Harry Cullen installed one to keep the bar consistent with its appearance in the novels.)

Such references lend authenticity to a writer’s work and turn towns and cities into characters themselves. But incorporating them successfully is a literary balancing act. Too heavy-handed a reference can come across as travelogue-like shilling. The appearance of businesses can date a book if they close after publication. And authors run the risk of angering owners if the book includes a negative comment, or especially if something bad happening on the premises. “If you’re showing the location or its proprietors in a bad light, then I would make up something,” Marks recommends. Generally speaking, the exception to that rule is public places, since no one’s going to stand for a political thriller in which the body shows up in the Oval Office in the cleverly renamed Beige House. But even that choice carries its risks, as New York writer Con Lehane discovered when he published Murder at the 42nd Street Library after a winter doing research at the branch to get a feel for the place. On learning the nature of the book, the library pulled his research credentials and canceled a planned book event. “The PR department at the library took umbrage that I would be blaring out the idea the folks got murdered at the library,” Lehane said.

For some writers, the inclusion of real places is a natural way to lend credibility to their fiction. In Three Can Keep a Secret, the second book in Judy Clemens’s Stella Crown series, she included a scene set in Zoto’s Diner in Line Lexington, Pennsylvania. They loved the reference and framed the page for display. “They were used in a positive sense, and I guess they felt it gave them a little free advertising!” Clemens said.

Other writers focus more on capturing the feel of a place rather than specific details, an objective familiar to anyone trying to craft realistic dialogue rather than regurgitate realconversation with all its “ums” and “ers” and “you knows.” Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, tells the story of doing his best to get the streetscape of New York down correctly in Tripwire, until he realized his description “was like reading a MapQuest page on acid.” Instead, as he recalled in a 2015 Harvard Book Store interview with Stephen King, he stuck with the real streets but had his characters do things that made sense to the plot if not the realities of New York traffic, like turning left off the West Side Highway onto Houston Street. “So that to me became an absolute example of how actually you’ve got to get things wrong to get them right,” Child said.

Similarly, Bruce DeSilva, in his series about Providence, Rhode Island investigative reporter—and later private investigator—Liam Mulligan, chose to change the name the of the city’s longtime paper, The Providence Journal, to The Providence Dispatch, so he could “be free to talk about the paper’s failing business without having access to accurate proprietary financial information.” DeSilva is upfront with readers about his approach, explaining in editor’s notes why he chooses to mix facts with fiction. Nevertheless, DeSilva learned the hard way how closely residents pay attention to details when he did include a real locale. He received an e-mail from a reader “so angry that I could almost feel the sender’s spittle flying out of my computer screen.” The author’s sin? He had used an authentic Providence restaurant, Caserta Pizzeria, but had his character eat an item, a three cheese and meatball pizza, not actually on the menu.

For the most part, three rules seem to apply when deciding whether to use real-world locations in your fiction.

  • Despite Lehane’s experience, putting bodies in public places—parks, government buildings, stadiums—is kosher. Putting them in private institutions such as restaurants is another matter. “I always use fictional locations for the actual crime scenes,” says Kristen Lepionka, author of the Columbus-based Roxane Weary private eye series.
  • If you’re going to use someplace real, get the details right and consider working with the proprietors ahead of time. “It takes time and effort to get to know the nuances of a place. Readers who are familiar with the setting will expect you to capture it well,” said Kathleen Ernst, author of the Chloe Ellefson series, which features many actual museums and historic sites.
  • Fudging some details about a town or city is fine, especially if it helps better capture the spirit, if not the letter, of your location. “I wind up changing real places to a fictionalized amalgamation based on that part of town,” said Tennessee teacher and writer Robert Mangeot.

In the end, truth—the essence of a place—is what’s most important in geographic descriptions. After all, our allegiance should be to our readers and their entertainment, not the eagle-eyed residents of whatever place we’re writing about.

Although if my private eye ever gets hungry on a Sunday again, I assure you he won’t be going to the Chef-o-Nette.

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