Writing part 1: Using a fictional or real place?


When writing the first part of the book, set in an English port town in 1890, i was very conscious of historical accuracy. I had two potential ports in mind for the setting of the story and to be perfectly honest, couldn’t decide on which would be best. Coupled with this, i found the idea of being straight-jacketed by a place’s existing topography, having to constantly check if this or that street existed felt like a big barrier to just getting the story down. 

So i decided to make one up. I called this town Craymouth, located on the South coast, attached to the Downs with the river Cray winding down into port. I could see the topography of the town to the extent that i could draw a map of the whole place; the harbour front, different docks, even the different gradients of various roads, which ones afforded a view of the port below and which didn’t. 

Once i’d written the first part, i was fairly happy with it. I did however, still have a niggling doubt about having a fictional place. The doubt was this; what would be the affect on the reader? Would they wonder if this place existed or not, would they go and check?  My concern (or paranoia) was that every time they read the place name of Craymouth they would be shaken awake from the fictional dream and stop enjoying the story. It was like putting a big sign up every couple of pages that said; this isn’t real, it’s all made up!  

Unsure of what to do, i asked one of my writer friends, who shared a story of facing this same question at a writing event. She was talking to an agent and was asked that wonderful question which makes and buries us; what’s your story about then? She then proceeded to explain that her novel was set in x place, a fictional town based on Penrith and the agent interrupted;

‘Why not just make it Penrith?’

And i imagined I was being  asked that question, blowing a chance to intrigue an agent by stumbling over such routine a question. What comeback would i have?

‘Well i wanted  to set my own topography and imagine my own town, get the story down you know.’ i’d say.

The riposte suddenly seemed childish and even lazy. The real port town was already the perfect stage for everything within Perry Scrimshaw. Of course it was. 

And so i will use the existing topography, and set it in a real place. 

And the port town? It was Southampton of course.