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Real Versus Fictional Settings

           Many writers question whether it is best to set their story in a real location or a fictional one.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  In the end it really boils down to preference, but here are a few of the pros and cons I have weighed in my writing:

Real Setting Pros:

1.  The setting is already laid out for you, so site maps are readily available.  In writing my novel, Island of Tory, I used a variety of online maps to get an accurate feel for the location of key points of interest.

2.  People who are familiar with your setting may be intrigued by a story set in a place they know well and are fond of.  This could increase your readership.

3.  The history, folklore, and local stories of a real setting can be woven into your fictional story, giving it authenticity.

Real Setting Cons:

1.  In choosing a real setting for your novel, you risk being inaccurate in your description if not careful, and this could invoke the wrath of readers who demand precision.

2.  There is no room for deviation in a real setting.  If you put a coffee shop or church in the setting, for the sake of your story, where in reality there is none, you chance confusing or even turning off readers who are familiar with what the real setting looks like.

Fictional Setting Pros:

1.  Your imagination is the limit with a fictional setting.  You can put any buildings, landmarks, or points of interest you choose in a fictional setting to accomplish your plot goals.

2.  No one can dispute the location of items in a fictional setting as long as you are consistent in where things are.

3.  You can add any back story to the history, lore, or culture of your fictional setting without being wrong.

Fictional Setting Cons:

1.  You have to make up the location, history, culture, and anything else associated with your setting.  You can get ideas from real settings, but you have to be careful not to be too obvious in copying everything about a real location, or your readers will see through a simple name change and think you are being unimaginative.

  2.  You have to map out where everything is located in your fictional setting and be consistent in distance and timing throughout your story to make it believable.

            Before starting to write my ya novel, Island of Tory, I was perusing the internet trying to get ideas for the basic plot for my next book.  I hadn’t decided on a real or fictional setting, and I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to write about yet.  The one thing I did know was my story had to have elements of the paranormal in it.  Immediately, I thought of Ireland. 

            Ireland has always been, for me, synonymous with all things magical, supernatural, and mysterious.  The land and its people embrace their myths and legends as part of their history and culture like no other.  And because of this, Ireland is the one place on earth that seems to keep a precarious balance between reality and fantasy.

            In my internet searches, I began looking for remote Irish islands.  Just as Ireland evokes a sense of mystery for me, so too, do islands.  With being cut off from the mainland, island inhabitants evolve their own set of beliefs and lore, making their cultures unique from that of their motherlands.  My searches brought up a variety of Irish islands, all of which had their own distinctive folklore to boast of.  Upon reading the stories and traditions of Tory Island, I knew it was the perfect setting for my novel.

            The lore of Tory Island is uniquely rich, full of tales of fairies, wishes, curses, and ancient rituals.  As I read deeper into Tory’s folklore, I realized the hard part of developing my story was already done for me.  All I had to do was weave the different pieces of island lore into a single plot line, and after eleven months of twisting, turning, and adjusting, the puzzle was complete.

            No, I have never been to Tory Island, and no, I have never been to Ireland.  But, with the help of Google Earth, Facebook, and Shutterstock, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty close.  In writing Island of Tory, I spent untold hours researching the island and its history.  I studied island maps, questioned residents and tourists of Tory via Facebook, scrutinized pictures of the sites to the point of feeling like I had lived on Tory. 

            In writing, Island of Tory, I could have created an imaginary setting, but as Tory Island proves, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.  Everything I needed for a mysterious island setting was already there.  Why reinvent the wheel when one is just waiting for you to roll with it?  And in using a real place in which to set my novel, along with real events and folklore to plot my story, I place the question in the reader’s head of where to draw the line between reality and fiction.  It’s this blurring of the lines between truth and perception that adds to the story’s air of mystery that brings the reader back for more.

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About Regina M. Geither

Regina M. Geither is a writer, reader, teacher, and mother of three (not necessarily in that order). When not practicing word craft or imparting wisdom to future generations, she spends her time appreciating the mysteries of life (dreams, premonitions, apparitions, and the teenage psyche). She is the author of the ISLAND OF TORY trilogy and the CELTIC KIDS series.

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