“Memphis is in a very lucky position on the map.”
Facebook friend and fan Paula Cassidy recently asked me, “What’s the most difficult thing about using Memphis as a setting for some of your books?”
For those unfamiliar with them, I wrote two vampire novels set in 1975 Memphis, Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood (I hope to one day complete the trilogy with Blood Will Rise Again, but that’s another topic). Here’s a blog post I wrote about recreating the specific time period. But now I want to talk about geography, both actual and creative.
I was twelve years old in ’75, and visited Memphis many times, so I had some first-hand knowledge. But I was in my 40s and lived in Wisconsin when I wrote these books. Prior to writing them, the last time I was in the River City was in 2003, for a single night, to attend a Kate Campbell concert. And, of course, the city has changed quite a bit since I was twelve. The advent of Mud Island, the Pyramid, the revamped Beale Street, the closing of Libertyland, all were major alterations to the city I remembered. So it fell to research to add the flesh to the skeleton of my memories.
A lot of things can be found online, but there are simply some facts that Wikipedia doesn’t cover, and for that you need an expert. Luckily I found Theresa R. Simpson, the Memphis contact for About.com. She tracked down obscure information for me about the city at the time of my story, including particularly geography and history. If the books are accurate, it’s in large part thanks to her; anything that’s wrong, I take full responsibility for.
I learned something interesting about a story’s physical location through that whole process, and it’s informed my subsequent writing. It’s fine to use a real location, but unless you’re prepared to be taken to task by someone who knows the area better than you (and there’s always someone), it’s often better to create your own space. Show your inspirations if you need to: after all, everyone knows Metropolis is New York and Gotham City is Chicago, but it doesn’t stop us from enjoying stories of Superman and Batman. But with a fictional locale, you can tweak the geography to reflect the themes and events of the story in a way you can’t with a real place.
It’s actually two sides of how you approach telling a story. In one, you create characters who can live in a pre-existing world; in the other, you create an appropriate world for your characters. Both approaches are completely valid, but I find that my best work comes when I create the geography as well as the wildlife living in it.
Thanks to Paula Cassidy for asking her question.