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I'm currently experimenting with a story and its setting for a comic. The overall setting is simple: it is set in the real world, though slightly different (towards science-fiction), and primarily in the US at this point. Now I'm wondering in what city I would like to place it. It has to be a fairly large city, much like New York and such. There are a few fictional places, like a small (man-made) island and an office building.

The problem I have is that I don't live in the United States, nor am I able to visit it yet. I have done research and know a lot about it, but since I've never visited any city, that knowledge is only superficial. This makes using a real city difficult (finding maps and specific locations is not difficult with today's technology like Google Maps and Wikipedia, but sensory stuff like what you really see, hear and smell is impossible).

So what I planned to do was creating a fictional city inspired by cities like Metropolis and Gotham in the DC universe. The thing is, I want this city to "interact" with the world, unlike what GTA did (islands in the middle of nowhere), and place it in the real world (like the aforementioned DC cities), so characters can interact with the country around it.

It all comes down to this: is there a way to properly research real cities without actually visiting, or spending a whole lot of money (since I don't earn much yet)?

Or, if it's easier and cheaper, how I can believably place a fictional city in the real United States (like replacing smaller towns, or just finding an empty stretch of coast or riverside without angering people that I've "erased" their hometown from the map)? As far as I can find it, all the fictional DC cities are located in relatively empty regions of the country.

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With Google maps and Google street view, you can get a lot of detail about the layout of a city and just what it looks like at any given point that would have been very difficult ten or twenty years ago.

That said, sure, if you set a story in a place that you have never been to, it is very likely that you will make mistakes about things that you didn't even think to question. This could range from small things that would have a minor impact on the story, like, "You say the hero ordered apple pie in the restaurant, but in our culture apples are considered bad luck and it would be a VERY unusual restaurant that would serve apple pie", to something that would undermine your whole plot, like "Your hero is black -- that's been very clear throughout the series -- and now you say he is a spy in this city? But there are no black people in our country, so any black person coming here would stand out from 100 miles away and it would be almost impossible for him to function as a spy."

If you use a real city, I wouldn't worry about getting tiny details wrong. Like if you say, "He walked past the coffee shop on Third Street", and there is no coffee shop on Third Street, very few readers would notice or care. Even if someone said to himself, "Wait, Third Street? There's the men's clothing store, the Thai restaurant, the auto parts store ... there's no coffee shop on Third Street!", he'd probably just assume that you put one there to make the story work and brush it off. People will accept fictional details of that sort just like they accept your fictional characters: No one is going to say, "What? The writer says that hero lives in this city and he is named Fred Stover? But I just checked the phone book and there's no one in this city by that name!"

But fundamental things about the nature of the city you need to get right. Like if you set the story in New York and say that most of the people work in the oil fields surrounding the city, or you set it in Chicago and talk about the harsh winds blowing in from the desert, that would be really jarring and unbelievable. (Unless the story is set in the future and you explain how such a radical change came about.)

If you make up a fictional city, you free yourself from a lot of that trouble. You can make the city almost anything you like, and no one can say it's wrong, because you just made it up. If possible I'd make the exact location vague. Like don't say, "Twelve and a half miles south of New York along the coast", just say "in New Jersey" or even "along the Atlantic coast" and somewhere else mention "in the north", etc. That way you don't have to worry about a reader saying, "Hey, there's no island off the coast there" or "but why didn't the hero go to Smithtown for that, that would be right across Highway 90, wouldn't it?"

Of course a fictional city in the U.S. would have to have a culture at least generally consistent with the rest of the U.S., or you would have to explain why not. Like if you set a story in a fictional U.S. city and then mention that the hero is marrying a certain woman because this was arranged by their parents, or that the hero rides a rickshaw to work every day, you couldn't just toss that in casually, you'd have to provide some explanation.

Afterthought

Seemingly small errors CAN be jarring. An example that occurs to me: I once saw a movie where a character casually mentions that she grew up in Lima, Ohio. It wasn't a big part of the movie, they were just trying to toss in that she grew up in this small town before moving to the big city. But at the time I lived in Ohio, not far from Lima. And the character in the movie pronounced it "Lee-ma", like the city in Peru. People who live there pronounce it "Lie-ma", like the bean. It sounded very weird to me. Like doesn't she know how to pronounce the name of her own home town?

On a more significant point, consider the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark". They depict the Germans as apparently being in control of Egypt. German soldiers freely travel around the country, German officials are dictating to people, etc. But at the time this movie was set, Egypt was controlled by the British. I'm not sure if the writers thought that Germany controlled Egypt, or if we are supposed to think that the Germans could do all this right under the noses of British authorities somehow.

  • If I create a fictional city, I wouldn't explain its location in extreme detail, like which highways connect to it or what train lines run through it. I do want to have some direction such as "50 miles south of New York along the west coast" for example, hinting at its actual location. I plan on creating a map eventually, so I do want to have some indication of the real geography and surroundings. On another note, I am never really bothered with small mistakes, even if I knew they were wrong, as long as it doesn't stick for too long. – N van Oosten May 5 '15 at 19:19
  • If you're going to have a map, then presumably you have to have a specific location. Without knowing the details of your story, I can't say whether it's a good idea to have a map or not. If the specific location of this city matters, like if it's important to the story that it's so many miles to New York and so many miles to Baltimore and so forth, maybe because the characters are regularly travelling to other cities and you need to keep travel times consistent and realistic, then there's no avoiding it. But if you're adding a fictional city to a real country, as I say, I'd keep it vague. – Jay May 6 '15 at 13:37
  • BTW You know New York is on the EAST coast, not the west, right? Maybe you're thinking it's the west coast of the Atlantic Ocean? But no one in the U.S. calls it that. We think of it as the east coast of the country. If you way "the west coast", Americans understand that to mean California, Oregon, and Washington. – Jay May 6 '15 at 13:40
  • Oops, yes. I made a terribe mistake. I know New York is on the east coast, but I was also thinking about placing my city on the west coast at the same time I wrote the comment, so I mistyped. At this point knowing the actual location is not important, but I do want to have its general location in the back of my head to avoid mistakes in the future with geographical inconsistencies. – N van Oosten May 7 '15 at 7:34
  • I basically generalized it as being on the east coast, somewhere between Washington DC and New York, with the coastline being based on the Delaware Bay. The location itself (or at least a general location) is necessary, because I want to create a (simple) map first and then perhaps making it "part" of a real map like Google Maps. – N van Oosten May 7 '15 at 7:34
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Two approaches to researching existing cities without travelling there:

  1. Read about that city.

    A lot has been written about New York, from travel journals to biographies to history books to fiction to science fiction to politics to newspaper articles. Everything about New York has been written down somewhere, including the smells. While New York is certainly exceptional, many other cities and towns have been written about and documented.

  2. If you have specific questions, ask a persom who lives there.

    With the social media, writer's forums, and local online communities, you'll certainly find someone who can tell you what New York or any other city smells like.

And a recommendation:

  1. Do mot create a fictional city based on the model of a fictional city.

    Gotham is the cliché of a city, and a derivative Gotham will be the cliché of a cliché. If you want your fictional city to feel real, it is better to create it from the cities you know. Many aspects of large cities are the same worldwide. For example, traffic is crazy in New York, London, Rome and Shanghai. Probably a different kind of crazy, but the important part is how big city traffic differs from small town traffic, not how traffic in Rome differs from traffic in Paris. Just complement and "correct" your local home city with what you know to be different in a U.S. American city.

  • No, I never intended to base my city directly on Gotham, but I saw it as inspiration for how a fictional can be created and still "fit" in the real United States. – N van Oosten May 5 '15 at 19:15
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"...how I can believably place a fictional city in the real United States (like replacing smaller towns, or just finding an empty stretch of coast or riverside without angering people that I've "erased" their hometown from the map)?"

I think you have answered your own question. Just get out the map and look for a good site for a city, and if there isn't one alter the geography to make a good site. I honestly don't think anyone is going to be offended by the erasure of their home town - 99.99% of people don't study a fictional world closely enough to notice.

Make a virtue of necessity. Revel in the fact that your city does not feel, sound or smell like NYC. Of course it doesn't, it has a quite different history. Perhaps German immigrants had a stronger influence, visible on shop signs and in the names of your characters? Perhaps the local Indian tribe continued to have a strong presence nearby, again affecting character names and place names. Whatever changes you make to history should show up a little in your character's personal histories too, as bitterness or happy nostalgia.

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Consider setting your story in a place that doesn't exist now, but exists in your mind. Do what DC and other comics do, and create a 'bit like reality but not exactly like reality now' setting that works for your story.

You can create whatever place you want. If you want to have an American influence, do so. But be prepared to create your own world.

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If you do web searches on movies cities and books cities (and similar searches), you get lots of hits that you'll probably find helpful. Stuff like "Top 10 cities on film", "Cities as characters in film", "50 Coolest Fictional Cities". Also, searching for videos using travelogue CityName (e.g., travelogue "New York City") gives useful hits. The web is your best friend when you're researching for a comic (or book, or whatever). Just don't let it trap you so you never write the comic! ;-)

As far as what American city to choose: Unless you're going for realism, I would recommend creating a fictional city that is co-located with a real city. Then take the elements you admire about various cities and combine them. For example, I personally think that Seattle's geographical location is amazing. You can't beat Puget Sound. But Seattle's downtown is underwhelming. OTOH, NYC is too much for my taste. I prefer the skyscraper-filled but compact downtowns of Philadelphia or Chicago. Then again, the open malls of monument-filled Washington, DC are also impressive. Islands and bridges are great for stories, as are hills. Harbors just beg for international intrigue.

If you set your comic in the future, or in an alternate reality, you can make your comic's city any way you like it, but still have it seem real because you've based it on real cities.

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