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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Using a VSS-Vaguely Specific Setting by Andrew MacRae

Using a VSS – Vaguely Specific Setting

Readers of my novels featuring “The Kid”, a mostly-retired professional pickpocket, frequently comment on the setting; a somewhat recognizable San Francisco, except that it’s never named.

This is due to my fear of being caught out for an inaccuracy should I set the stories in a real city. Instead, I can rearrange geography and landmarks as needed, not adhere to a musty old, hoary concept called reality.

Case-in-point: In “Murder Misdirected” The Kid walks along the foundations of an old amusement park near the ocean. I call it Playland by the Beach, and people familiar with that old amusement park know exactly what I’m talking about, while those who aren’t, have no problem figuring it out, based on the name.



But… the first group, those who recognize the name, are wrong. The foundations of the real Playland by the Beach are long paved over by development. The Kid is really walking atop the foundations of the Sutro Baths, an Edwardian age, glass-walled, swimming palace, that burned to the ground in the mid 1960s. It would have interrupted the narrative flow to call it the Sutro Baths, as then I’d be obligated to explain to the reader what they were. Instead, I engage in a little bit of slight-of-hand, and not limited by reality, things work out just fine.

Another Example: In “Murder Miscalculated”, the opening scene takes place at an old army post in San Francisco. Fort Mason was once the embarkation point for two million service men and women as they left for the war in the Pacific in WWII. Now it is a center for non-profit activities.


In my story, Fort Mason has become Fort Williams where a classical-jazz combo plays on the lawn. This bit of fakery was in honor of a favorite musician from my youth. I’ll leave it to classical and jazz aficionados to figure that one out.

Finally: My most recent novel, “The Hour of the Pearl” and yet to find a home, is a historical mystery, set in 1948 in Monterey California. My detective has his office on Cannery Row, on the second floor of the Wing Chong Co. General Store. Well, anyone familiar with the history of Cannery Row, and I consulted quite a few in writing the novel, will tell you that there were only apartments above Wing Chong’s, and certainly no offices.

To which I reply, ‘piffle!’ If any place deserved a second floor PI office, it’s Cannery Row.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.






Bio: Andrew MacRae is a misplaced Midwesterner who lives and writes mysteries in the San Francisco bay area. He is the author of numerous short stories, two published novels from Mainly Murder Press, and the editor of “The Anthology of Cozy-Noir” and the soon-to-be-released “And All Our Yesterdays”, both published by his imprint, Darkhouse Books.





8 comments:

  1. Excellent advice. I usually write about fictional places that have a great resemblance to their real counterparts.

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  2. In my post-World War II private eye yarn The Jade Bone Jar, I used real locales in Oakland, even scoping out the old Key Route lines, Bay Farm Island when it was an actual agricultural site and the West Oakland Jazz Scene. To me, half the fun of writing the story was doing the historical research...

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  3. In my post-World War II private eye yarn The Jade Bone Jar, I used real locales in Oakland, even scoping out the old Key Route lines, Bay Farm Island when it was an actual agricultural site and the West Oakland Jazz Scene. To me, half the fun of writing the story was doing the historical research...

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  4. Sounds like a good combination of reality but without tempting people to send you a note saying, "No, the barber shop was on the corner of Pine & Fifth, not Pine and Tenth."

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  5. Interesting since I assumed the books were set in San Francisco. You did a good job of "painting a picture" of the area and I never noticed you didn't mention the town name. :-)

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  6. Andrew, your books are a good example of how you can make up names and alter places in a real city and still convey the overall feel of the place. Place names, and especially street names, can change anyway. And I agree that Cannery Row was a great place for a PI office in those days. :) Really looking forward to reading the new book.

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  7. I thinly disguise where I'm writing about. Fresno County becomes Central County (it is smack in the center of California). Street names and towns are altered. The local readers pick them out without hesitation. But, I was writing while employed with the sheriff's dept. and didn't want to get in trouble by naming actual names.

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  8. I thinly disguise where I'm writing about. Fresno County becomes Central County (it is smack in the center of California). Street names and towns are altered. The local readers pick them out without hesitation. But, I was writing while employed with the sheriff's dept. and didn't want to get in trouble by naming actual names.

    ReplyDelete