Guest: Liz Milliron on Importance of Place

News Flash: Celia Fowler is Liz’s winner. Congratulations, Celia! Check your email.

Edith here, loving me some August. I’m delighted to welcome my friend Liz Milliron to the blog today. Her debut adult novel, Root of All Evil, releases today! It’s her first Laurel Highlands Mystery, although she’s has several compelling short stories in juried anthologies recently. I’ve been following her progress toward today and am so pleased her book made it into the hands of the reading public. We’re also fellow sprint buddies over on Ramona DeFelice Long’s page every morning. Here’s what Amazon says about the book:Root-Front-Cover-Web

Rumors of a meth operation in rustic Fayette County catch the attention of Pennsylvania State Trooper Jim Duncan. When he learns that Aaron Trafford, a man who recently dodged a drug conviction, has returned to the county, the conclusion seems obvious. Trafford has set up a new operation.

Meanwhile, assistant public defender Sally Castle’s colleague, Colin Rafferty, has become uncharacteristically nervous and secretive. Her suspicion that he’s hiding something serious is confirmed when she learns of a threatening visitor and discovers a note on his desk stating, “You’d better fix this.” Colin’s subsequent murder is the first frayed thread in a complex web of deceit. Jim fears Sally’s stubborn determination to get justice for her friend will put her in a killer’s crosshairs, but Sally won’t rest until she finds answers–even if it costs her everything.

Take it away, Liz! Oh, and she’s giving away a signed copy of the book to one US commenter here today.

Thanks so much to the Wickeds for having me! Place is incredibly important to a good mystery – to any good book, in my opinion. The best stories transport you to a place. Who wouldn’t swear that Three Pines was real, or glory in visiting Paris through Aimee LeDuc or Hugo Marston?

When an author decides to pick a place for her story, she has two options. The first is to make one up, either inspired by a real town or out of whole cloth. Many cozies, including a lot of books from the Wickeds, go this route.

street signsBig advantage: You have total control over your town. Even if it’s inspired by one of your favorite small towns in Massachusetts, you can decide where to put roads, buildings, what kind of businesses populate Main Street, the works. Sure, you need to keep track of these things because six books in you need to know where the post office is in relation to the police station. You can’t simply change things willy-nilly!

However, if you made Walnut Street one-way in book one, and now in book three you need it to go both ways, it’s not impossible to fix. Reference a fictional town meeting that changed the traffic flow on Walnut and your problem is (probably) solved. Bonus points: make it a contentious town meeting that ties into your story.

When I sat down to write The Laurel Highlands Mysteries, I went the opposite route.courthouse Fayette County, Confluence, Uniontown, and the Laurel Highlands are all very real. That meant I spent a lot of time with maps: paper, Google Maps/Earth (thank you to whoever invented Google Earth!), and taking trips for research. The Fayette County courthouse is on East Main Street in Uniontown and the street is one way. No matter how much I might want to, I can’t change that. I’ve looked at intersections to get street names correct, and the type of neighborhoods to make sure I don’t drop houses in the middle of the business district.

Before you start thinking this is all terribly constricting, it’s really not. I’ve only written one story (“The Far End of Nowhere” in Fish Out of Water) that used a made up town. Sure, you have to be careful not to mess too much with the landmarks and topography, but using a real location means you can take advantage of what the area has to offer. For example, the Laurel Highlands is full of historic landmarks, as well as locations such as resorts or Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Rich fodder for a storyteller.

There are, however, a few “rules” I have for myself:

1 – Crimes, or other nefarious doings, do not happen in real businesses/places. Unless they are public spaces. I don’t want to impugn someone’s workplace.

2 – I make up businesses as I need them. You won’t find Dex’s in Uniontown; its amazing Reuben only exists in my imagination. (The Lucky Dog Café does exist. I needed a place for Jim and Sally to grab a bite; I thought I made up the Lucky Dog, but I must have seen it on one of my trips and the name sunk into my back-brain.)

lucky dog

3 – Specific house numbers are fictional. It feels like too much of a violation of privacy to use someone’s real address (I may have used their house for inspiration).

I hope I’ve done justice to the wonderful locations in the Laurel Highlands. But one thing’s for sure: real or made up, place is of supreme importance for your story!

ohiopyle falls
Ohiopyle Falls

Readers: Do you prefer real places, made up locations, a mix, or don’t you care? One (Us-only) commenter will win a signed copy of Root of All Evil.

LizMillironLiz Milliron is the author of the Laurel Highlands mystery series, featuring a Pennsylvania State Trooper and a Fayette County public defender in the scenic Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania. The first in the series, ROOT OF ALL EVIL, was released in August 2018. Liz’s short fiction includes stories with the same characters in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales and The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fifth Course of Chaos, as well as stories in Mystery Most Historical, Fish out of Water, and Blood on the Bayou. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime and is a member of Pennwriters. Liz and her husband live near Pittsburgh with their two children. (Headshot by www.erinmclainstudio.com). Find her at http://www.lizmilliron.com/, https://www.facebook.com/LizMilliron/, and https://www.instagram.com/lizmilliron/

71 Thoughts

  1. Congratulations, Liz. and thanks for joining us! I loved learning about the background for some of the places in your book. I also follow the rule of “No murders in real businesses”

    1. Yeah, a local business (especially a small business) might be excited to be part of the story, but learning they are the scene of a murder will probably dampen that enthusiasm. 🙂

  2. Happy book birthday, Liz! I don’t really care if a place is real or made up, but I will say there is an extra level of enjoyment when I read books set in real places I’m familiar with. Being able to picture the exact scene in a book because you’ve actually been there is always fun.

  3. I’m trying to keep the setting in my current WIP true to the real place… but it’s tricky! I like your rules for what to change. Much of the action takes place inside a (probably) haunted house in the oldest section of town. I’ve located the house on a real street, but with a street number that doesn’t exist.

    Congrats on the release!

    1. Yep, I think that’s the key if you’re using real places. You have to use the backdrop and spirit, but add your own twist. A haunted house is a perfect example. You wouldn’t want to spook the current homeowners or having people lining up on the street to watch them because “I read a book that says this house is haunted.”

  4. Isn’t it fun when you can put whatever you want in your book’s setting, as needed? (As long as you can remember what you did, as your series goes on.) I’ve gone both ways–using a real place, because I know it fairly well (although I did kind of move a highway), and creating one to suit the story (I combined my New Jersey hometown with a small town in Maryland, and I’m still filling in the shops).

    1. It is! I haven’t moved any roads – yet – but no promising I won’t. I remember in one of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s books she apologized for moving around something in Boston to suit the story. But it was so beautifully done I didn’t even notice.

      And yes, remembering is key. Thank goodness for the series bible!

  5. The danger of using real places is locals will KNOW if you get something wrong (but they’ll LOVE you if you get it right).

    1. Oh, yes. I remember once I stopped reading a book because it referenced a local all Catholic all-boys high school as having girls. I take a lot of “research” trips and study a lot of maps to do my best. But when I told some local business owners in Confluence, PA that the protagonist lived there and part of the book was set there, their faces lit up like Christmas trees!

  6. I use the real Salem MA in my Witch City Mysteries, and like Liz, make frequent use of maps and Google Earth. Salem has lots of one-way streets so I’m extra careful about that. I make up some places, like WICH-TV. Not real, but shouldn’t it be? I use some real businesses, real hotels, etc. I visit Salem once a year to check things out and take pictures. I like books set in make-believe places too. A good story makes any location real!

    1. Hi Carol,

      WICH-TV should definitely be a thing! I live one town over from Salem (Marblehead, where my current WIP is set) — so if you ever need eyes on the ground in between yearly visits, feel free to hit me up! Happy to scout for you. 🙂

      I’ll also have to check out your Witch City Mysteries.

      R.

      1. Thanks Robin. I may take you up on that! Message me your email, snail mail too. Lee and Pete (in the books) sometimes venture to Marblehead. They like walking on Deveraux Beach.

    2. Carol, WICH-TV should absolutely be a thing!

      Your visits sound a lot like mine. I vary the seasons of the visits too so I can see the location in all conditions.

      And I agree about a good story – I had to stop reading Annette Dashofy’s CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE to check a map and make sure I was right, that Monongahela County didn’t exist, because her sense of place was so beautiful.

  7. As a reader, I don’t really care if the setting is real or made up. I think a made-up setting definitely gives the author more flexibility,

  8. It doesn’t matter to me, but if it is a real place, make sure you got those cross streets and locations correct, because I’m visualizing it all. I remember one book where the author had the heroine going down fifth Avenue to 49th street and entering Central Park. Not good as you enter Central Park on 59th Street.

    1. Oh my gosh, Dru, yes! I have several pictures of street signs (like the one above) and I spend a ton of time looking at maps to make sure I get intersections correct. It’s also why I don’t think I’d try to use a city like New York as a setting. I just don’t know enough about it! I’d definitely be that author having a character enter Central Park in the wrong place.

  9. Congratulations on the book and I can’t wait to read it. As someone who lives south of Pittsburgh I like reading about this area in fiction!

  10. Congratulations, Liz! I look forward to your series, and as a resident of the Laurel Highlands (albeit a different area than in your storyline) it will be fun to read places and names that may be familiar. Best wishes for continued success!

  11. Both types of locations work for me. It’s more of how it’s written and how believable it is. Both give you a chance to travel and explore locations from the comfort of your armchair when you aren’t able to travel to them. Real locations that touch on the historical places give you insight into how the town is laid out and it’s like having a mental camera seeing all the sites. It’s really fun to read about places you have been where memories are triggered by a location or a business that you once visited. Whereas a made up location gives your imagination free rein to explore places that would be cool to visit if you could just find them. Meanwhile you can flip the pages and find out all the cool places in this made up town.

    Congratulation on the release of ” Root of All Evil” which sounds absolutely like a book I’d love the opportunity to read. Thank you for the chance to win a copy!
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  12. Congratulations, Liz, on the release of ROOT OF ALL EVIL, my copy arrived on my Kindle this morning and I can’t wait to begin reading!

    Real v. fictional towns. My preference depends on the story. If the story is set in a real place then I expect the writer to be true to the location, with the addition of fictional shops, restaurants, etc. as needed. In a contemporary novel/mystery, to discover the Hudson River flowing through Pittsburgh or a four-lane highway running from Miami to Key West would cause the book to hit the wall. To explore Tasty Joe’s Sub Shop and Cheese Emporium in either location, well, I’m more than willing, and if a cold dead hand flops out of the walk-in, so be it. By the same token, if the author creates the town of Hellzapoppin bordering Washington, DC and sets a story there, I’m willing to wander the streets and byways right alongside the residents.

  13. Congrats on the debut! (One I don’t have yet.)

    I like made up places. I like real places. As long as the author does a good job of bringing the location to life, I don’t care.

  14. I don’t really care if a place is real or made up in a story I’m reading as long as things stay the same throughout the whole series, or have an explination for changing. Since I am not a well traveled person I most likely wouldn’t realize if places, streets, etc used in a book based on a real place were accurate or not, BUT if it were based on a real location that I knew it would bug me if facts weren’t correct!

  15. Congratulations on your release, Liz! I love to read and to write books set in either real or imagined places. It can be freeing to make things up and inspiring to use details from real places. As long as the setting acts as almost a character in the story it works for me!

  16. Congratulations on the book birthday! This is so exciting.

    As a reader the only thing I really care about, location-wise, is that it makes sense to the story. I recognize the need for making stuff up–it’s fiction, after all. And I’m willing to suspend disbelief for all of it. I mean, the idea of a cupcake baker stumbling over dead bodies every month is completely ludicrous, anyway, right? Why should every other detail be genuine?

  17. Happy Release Day! I like books with either imagined or real places. You mentioned a place that I have a perfect picture of in my mind — Three Pines (I think they even have a Three Pines tour that visits the real places around it). I also like real locations but understand the necessity of making some changes and additions. My favorite city to read about is London.

  18. I love when an author can create a whole town complete with businesses and landmarks so convincing that I am disappointed when I learn they aren’t real when I research them. Real settings can be fun, too, when I’m familiar with them.

  19. Root of All Evil sounds like a wicked cozy indeed! I am okay either way with making a place up or using one that exists, but you are right that place is very important. I always get a little thrill when I recognize something about a place I am familiar with but I probably don’t even recognize the made up places Over the years as I’ve come to learn just how much research authors do and how careful they are to make things logical and authentic I am impressed with whatever the setting.

  20. I love reading about real locations to visit or ones I have seen. My parents both came from Uniontown and had many relatives in the area thus many visits. Hope your use The Summit Hotel as a setting. It was a great rest spot in The 30s and 40s when my parents worked there. Horseback riding and grey dinning were a plus. The Laurel Caverns and Fort Neccesity are also close. Hope I win your book.Would love to to tell you tell from the past in that area.

    1. Candy, that is so cool! I have not used the Summit Inn, but it looks like a great place for a long weekend. My son has done tours of both the Laurel Caverns and Ft. Necessity with Boy Scouts.

  21. I love reading stories with a mix of real and fictional places. It gives the story a strong base with fun quirky additions.

  22. I enjoy reading stories set in real places, especially if I’ve been there. I also enjoy reading about fictional towns as long as they have the right atmosphere. I mean a Southern, New England, or Western town shouldn’t sound the same.

  23. Congratulations on your new release! I think I have a slight preference for real places. And I’m setting my WIP in the city I live in–but adding a few extra locations, here and there. I’ve stuffed in a small museum on an historic street close to downtown, for example. And I reference some real places–but nothing bad would ever happen in one of the real locations. That just wouldn’t be fair!
    –Melanie

    1. Melanie, that’s pretty much my approach. It doesn’t seem right to make bad things happen someplace that’s real–especially a private business. Public places, however, are a different story.

  24. Congrats on your new release!
    An actual or made up place doesn’t matter to me. It’s the writing that makes it real.

  25. Congrats on your new release. I like both real locations and fictional settings. Either way I have a picture in my mind of the setting from the descriptions in the book.

  26. Liz’s rules seem sensible! I like a mix because I enjoy learning about a place I may not have been to. Congrats on the new release!

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