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I am currently working on a historical fiction novel set during the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1930s. As such, I would really like to have the story take place in Harlem. However, the specific places I plan to have my characters interact with, are at the moment, fictional. How much will this throw off readers?

For example, the story centers around a troupe of actors. If I place them in a made up theatre on Lenox Avenue, and no such theatre existed on Lenox Avenue in the 1930s, will that then make the novel less realistic?

Any advice is appreciated! Just want to make sure I can actually make this story work before I get too emotionally invested in it.

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    With almost 90 years in between, it is unlikely that anyone from that time and that place will knock at your door to complain. – NofP May 24 at 14:30
  • Also very true, thank you! – apenandadream May 24 at 14:31
  • Welcome to Writing.SE apenandadream. Please check out our tour and help center. That's a great question and I'm glad you found us to ask it. – Cyn says make Monica whole May 24 at 16:04
  • Make sure the reader knows whether you're telling history or telling a story. For me the inaccuracies in a screenplay like Argo, say, throw me off to the point where I have no respect at all for the writers. – PatrickT May 30 at 19:02
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Creating fictional places within a real world setting not only works in fiction, but it's extremely common.

Creating the the fictional space is helpful because it allows you to flesh it out however you wish. You don't have to worry about getting it wrong (though you'll still have to do your research to make sure it's consistent with the time and place). And you don't have to worry about creating falsehoods about real life people (some of whom could conceivably still be alive, or their children could be).

I'm someone who often looks up the facts when I'm done with a book (or especially a movie, because of the visual imagery). Did this place exist? Did this character exist? Did this really happen? I'm never disappointed to find out that an author bent the facts if the work is fiction (when it's based on real people, that's another story, but still often okay), I just incorporate the reality along with the book/movie in my worldview about it.

Creating a fictional theater in a real neighborhood sounds like a perfect combination of history and fiction to me.

I'm doing something similar myself. In my book, the characters hail from a small town in Arizona in 1995. It's in Yavapai County (north of Phoenix) and maybe a half hour drive from Prescott (which was the largest town in the county in 1995).

Because my town is fictional, I'm free to use whatever features I want that fit my story. For example, it's very important to the story that I have a lake that is a particular size and shape with a small beach and a dock. I could alter it some if needed but, one, I don't want to and, two, not by much. There is no town near a lake that fits my needs in the area (even if I expand the area quite a bit). But there are plenty of towns similar to what I have and plenty of lakes that are close to what I'm looking for. The town/lake I need is completely plausible, it just doesn't actually exist.

I also get to set up the school how I want, the neighborhoods, and the businesses/services that do and don't exist in town. Not to mention some important historical events that are, again, very plausible, they just didn't happen here.

Your goal is to make your setting so realistic that people have to go look it up to know if your version is real.

There are no shortcuts with research just because your setting is fictional. Each detail is going to have to be right. Within those constraints though, you're free to create whatever you wish.

Creating the setting is very much like creating the characters. They never existed in real life but they have to feel like they did.

So go ahead and write this book. You have a solid start.

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    Thank you so much for the detailed answer, and the example from your own story! I’m definitely doing as much research as I can so that whatever elements I create fit neatly into the context of the place and time period. – apenandadream May 25 at 19:24
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It'd make it less realistic, but it's an appropriate break from realism. It doesn't violate any 'contract' you may have established with the reader. What would be bad is if you establish rules at one point in the story that don't apply later on.

Given we have Hogwarts being accessed from King's Cross Station, platform nine-and-three-quarters, the kind of alteration you're proposing is far from unheard of.

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    I'd also add that it's completely inside the bound of the genre, since we're talking about fiction. – Reinstate Monica. May 24 at 13:28
  • Thank you both. And good point about Kings Cross. Thinking about it further, I’m almost leaning toward creating a sort of area/enclave within the city where the story’s major actions will take place. This way, I get the best of both worlds and can comfortably place everything I need whilst still being, for the most part, rooted in reality. – apenandadream May 24 at 14:30
  • It always bugged me that there is no nine-and-three-quarters platform at Kings Cross station. – PatrickT May 30 at 18:56
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Having reality as a foundation for the fiction makes it more believable, and limits how much explanation you need in the work. If it is set in New York, you don't need to explain why the ground is covered with melting, dirty snow on a warm February day. If it is in the 50's, you don't need to explain why some guy is wearing a Fedora hat.

I've read fiction that was wedged tightly into a reality I knew. In my reader's eye, I saw in which building each of the scenes was placed. Every word lived.

Were I writing this, I would ask if a theater could exist on Lenox Avenue. Wikipedia says yes, there were theaters and clubs. This would be another. Total plausibility. Where do your characters live? Chances are you can find a reality-grounded answer. Where do they eat? How do they move about in the city? How to they travel? Where are their parents and extended families? All of the backstories can be assembled from bits of the lives of real people and places.

By having a well-known setting -- historical, geographic, temporal, and social -- your story can focus on what is unique to your story. Who is different? Who is special? What do they do? What problems does that make? How are they changed? How do they change others? Why does it matter?

This can work well.

  • Good questions to explore, thank you! – apenandadream May 25 at 19:25
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It sounds like you've done some research about your time and location. I'm not aware of any genre rules, like "Historical Fiction verses Period Fiction", where the author is expected to limit only to verifiable facts. There are probably superfans who will nit-pick, but most people will just appreciate a good story.

You actually might want to go the other way and add more historic facts – famous names, actual locations. I think you can take liberties without being accused of writing Alternate History – especially if your story is original characters in a historic time and place. History buffs might be able to spot similarities between your fictional theater and ones that actually existed (they also might be the people who would enjoy your story). Still, most readers will give you plenty of creative leeway before accusing you of butchering history.

  • Thank you, this is exactly what I plan to do - include both real historical locations and fictionalized locations as well. – apenandadream May 25 at 19:22
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It's entirely common, and accepted, to do this sort of thing, in fiction, historical or contemporary, and it's trivial to find examples. There is no "big grey building near Regents Park" that houses Universal Exports, the covert Secret Service HQ in London, there is no 27th Precinct (the setting for the TV series Law & Order) in Manhattan, and so on.

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I tend to believe that almost all fiction is set in alternate universes to our universe, depending on how much details the fiction gives about persons, places, events, etc. and how much information about that time and place.

If a story is set in a first world country at the present, you can google the characters' names, for example, and you will probably find there are a lot of people with those names, but none living at their fictional addresses or having their fictional occupations.

Thus when you suspend your disbelieve in a contemporary story, you can suppose that the story must be in an alternate universe where those people live and have those occupations and addresses.

As a general rule, the farther back in history one goes, the less the information that is available, and the more latitude there is to make up details without fear of contradiction by nit picking historians. But there are still possible sources for much of the information a writer of historical fiction might need.

Suppose you are writing a western movie or novel where Geronimo the Apache is a character and want to know how old Geronimo would be at the date he appears. The logical thing to do would be to see what Geronimo's Story of His Life: as told to Stephen Melvil Barrett (1906) and his entry in the 1900 census at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, say. Of course they disagree about his birth year by 6 years, but that gives a rough idea. And if you base Geronimo's age on those sources you will make his age a lot more correct than many movies and tv episodes do.

I really like historical fiction that mix both fictional and real events. It is especially enjoyable to recognize recognize clever use of historical events I already know about.

The movie Drum Beat (1954) has a scene with Johnny McKay and Captain Jack that is fiction, but happens right after a scene with Captain Jack and a preacher that is allegedly true.

I didn't like the way that the film Tower of London (1939) had a 35-year-old actor portray a prince who was 17. And I really hated the way that a tv episode had a 58-year-old actor portray a historical king who very famously was killed at the age of 14!

Alfred Duggan's novel Family Favorites has many fictional and real incidents set during the reign of Elagabalus. I enjoyed how the narrator, a centurion, is depicted as the unnamed centurions mention in an incident in 218 and another one in 222.

George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman stories and novels put Flashman into many real events. Readers of Flashman (1969) might possibly be a little puzzled by a brief scene in the retreat from Kabul with Flashman, another officer, and an Indian child. They might wonder why Fraser depicted Flashman in a rather negative way. Actually Fraser simply put Flashman into the situation recorded by the other officer.

Thomas Berger's novel Little Big Man (1964) has many fictional characters and events as it traces the life of Jack Crabb or Little Big Man in the American and Cheyenne societies from about 1852 to 1876. I recognized some of the events in Jack's Life as real historical events I already knew about - much more so than in the 1970 movie which is much less historical.

The story is supposedly told by 111-year-old Jack Crabb to Ralph Fielding Snell. In the introduction Snell says that he checked the places and dates and so on from Jack's story and found that everything checks out the way Jack said (for example, he says that Kit Carson was at his ranch at the time he allegedly refused to give Jack a handout) - except for one thing that Jack got wrong. Jack claimed that Crazy Horse never wore a war bonnet, but Snell says he knows that Jack is wrong about that, because he, Snell, owns Crazy Horse's war bonnet and totally trusts the integrity of the dealer who sold it to him!.

It is said that Crazy Horse never wore a war bonnet, but I have read a description of Crazy Horse wearing a war bonnet once, perhaps a borrowed one.

I have an idea for a story about the Great Sioux War, also narrated decades later. It is common to think of the Little Bighorn as the greatest Indian Battle of the west, but since the Sioux & Cheyenne won at the little Bighorn but are not now independent nations, one might suppose that they were later defeated in the biggest battle in the west and my story, set on the frontier between the Wild West and history, will climax in that fictional Armageddon.

It is said that Major Chambers, in command of the mule-riding infantry with General Crook's army as it rode toward the Battle of the Rosebud, was at one moment so humiliated by their poor riding that he threw down his sword and stalked away in disgust. That gives me a plot idea.

The narrator will be unwilling present with white allies of the Sioux at the fierce Battle of the Rosebud on June 25, 1876. The Sioux will withdraw after six hours of heavy fighting, but then take up positions atop the two sides of the Rosebud canyon, hoping to ambush General Crook's army if he pursues them. The narrator, with Crazy Horse's command group, will watch as Crook's army approaches the mouth of the canyon.

Nobody knows if the alleged Sioux ambush was real. Crook's Crow and Shoshone allies warned him not to enter the canyon, claiming the Sioux were waiting to ambush them, and said that Crook's cavalrymen had wasted most of their ammunition. They said they had seen the cavalrymen put bunches of carbine cartridges on the ground for easy loading whenever they dismounted to shoot at the hostiles, and then carelessly not bother to pick up unused cartridges when they mounted to move to other firing positions. So it is said that Crook stopped the column to count cartridges and it was found that the average cavalryman had 5 carbine cartridges left out of the 100 he had been issued - having fired or left behind 95 percent of his ammo.

So the narrator will see Crazy Horse and those with him watch anxiously as Crook's men wait, and then be frustrated when Crook turns his army around and rides away. Crazy Horse will throw his war bonnet to the ground and stomp on it in frustration, and so will have to fight at the Little Bighorn on June 25 without one. Crazy Horse will have a new war bonnet by the time of the fictional great battle at the climax, and will destroy it in frustration when he is defeated. The narrator will say that Crazy Horse's people later claimed that he never wore a war bonnet, trying to cover up his undignified and childish behavior on those two occasions, but the narrator was there and saw it.

So I think that it would be a good idea to have your fictional actors in a fiction acting troupe in a fictional theater in Harlem putting on fictional productions sometimes mention real actors in real acting troupes in real theaters in Harlem putting on real productions at their correct dates, as friends, competitors, etc. And also to have your characters participate in or at least mention various real events of the the time, large and small, from international to local, as well as various fictional events

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