Thursday, July 21, 2011

Places in Fiction

Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels never appealed to me because we don't know where they're set. It's an unnamed big city, not New York, not Chicago, not Los Angeles. I was mildly put off by Lorri Moore's A Gate at the Stairs because while we can infer that it takes place mostly in Madison, Wisconsin, Moore coyly does not identify the midwestern college town. I'll gladly give her a pass, however, because she writes so well.

I prefer novels—generally—in which imaginary people move through real places: John Rebus in Edinburgh, Lew Archer in Los Angeles, Guido Brunetti in Venice. I also enjoy the occasional novel in which real people move through real places; I'm currently reading Susan Sontag's incredible The Volcano Lover. Not to mention (but I'll mention it anyway) I can enjoy stories of imaginary people moving through imaginary places--much science fiction.

All of which is to say that in my books, I want to use real places. Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan is set in Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and Tokyo. The tourists visit famous shrines, temples, and sites (some of them have been famous among the Japanese for hundreds of years), all of which you could visit today. Unfortunately, you cannot stay in the hotels and ryokan (Japanese-style inn) where my group stops.

There is, as far as I know, no Maruyama Koen Hotel in Kyoto. There is, however, a famous park, Maruyama Koen ("koen" means "park"), and that's how I named my imaginary hotel. The tour spends a night in Hakone, a resort area south of Tokyo in the mountains, so I named my imaginary inn Yamanaka, which means "among the mountains." In Nikko, they stay at an inn I named Takiguchi—"top of the waterfall." And I simply put the Ichigaya Grand Hotel across the street from the Ichgaya train station in Tokyo. In other words, no real hotels were harmed in the making of this novel.

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