Honor thy geography

So the Dresden Files book #1 is becoming a good example of both good points and bad. While I love–love–the TV show, the book is giving me mixed feelings. I have only read 2 chapters so far, so you’re getting the benefit of my slow speed in my reactions between reading the first two pages and the next 20. I’m sure it’s wonderful–I’m just reading it at the end of every day as time permits, which it doesn’t really permit much of lately. And I look forward to reading more (though I must admit the prose is a little wooden in the intro dept right now, but perhaps that’s crime novel/hardboiled detective novel convention that I’m not familiar with–certainly the TV show makes those parts over into much more in the ironic postmodern dept.). The following is a minor issue that calls attention to something that writers might want to be aware of in their own writing.

Remember that “My name is Harry Dresden” paragraph I referred to earlier? Right in that same paragraph, the narrator goes on to say “I work out of an office in midtown Chicago.”

Nobody works out of an office in midtown Chicago, because “midtown Chicago” doesn’t exist. You would say, “I work in the Loop,” or “I work in Bridgeport/Lakeview/Lincoln Park/Pullman/Wicker Park/South Shore/Hyde Park” or any number of other neighborhoods. If you’re a Chicagoan (which I was, for two years, and am a native Illinoisan) you’d know this terminology, so I’d want Harry to know it. Or at least use the regional terms, like North Side, South Side, West Side, and the Loop. (No East Side, which would be Lake Michigan.)

If you’re going to set your fantasy in a contemporary real-life location, you still need to pay attention to little details like that so that readers familiar with that location won’t be thrown out of the story . In other words, don’t do anything that would severely challenge their suspension of disbelief.

With the Dresden Files, for me, the TV show is engaging enough and I already know the concept. I want to like the books, want to see how they compare . So I elide over geographical nitpickery, but it still niggles at me. And if I were reading a manuscript cold, it would bug me even more. Not enough to reject something just for that kind of error, but enough to make me wonder if the author has paid attention to other details and make me keep a sharper eye out.

There are many, many examples in both literature and film where geography is played with to serve the story. Certainly Jack didn’t walk Lucy home to Oak Park from the riverwalk on Wabash–a distance of at least 10 miles–in While You Were Sleeping. And, I might add, they were walking toward the lake near the Tribune Tower, which means they were headed the wrong direction anyway, east instead of west. It made for a prettier shot, I’m sure. And it works for people who don’t know Chicago, and even if you do, it’s still a good movie. Same for Sleepless in Seattle and a number of other movies.

So of course you can play with geography if you need to. However, just keep in mind that  especially when you use a location to provide flavor in your first few pages, and even later when you use locational details to establish setting, you need the little details to be accurate. If, in that paragraph, Butcher had had Harry Dresden say, “I work out of an office on the South Side of Chicago,” I would have happily continued on my way reading, without needing more specific detail about which neighborhood, because at least he used the right general term. He wouldn’t have called attention to the possible fact that he might
never have lived in Chicago. (He may have, for all I know–his bio doesn’t say one way or the other, just says he currently lives in Missouri.

I don’t care if you’ve never lived in a setting you’re writing in (though of course I’d rather you have at least visited, though sometimes that can’t be helped, especially with foreign countries). But if you’ve never lived there, be sure to do your homework.

Any other examples where this kind of situation brought you out of the story? Anybody who this doesn’t bother? Why or why not? Can a good plot overcome bad geography? (I give a qualified yes: bad geography is an editable offense.)

*Despite being obviously filmed in Vancouver–sad that, because Chicago is an AWESOME town to see, and you should spend time there if you haven’t. Oh, and speaking of Chicago, is there today and tomorrow for Support Teen Lit Day for YALSA, so watch your local news on the 19th to look for an interview with her!