I'm wondering how much latitude authors can have in general when it comes to details of an urban setting. I know the oft-told story of "the parking lot of Wrigley Field", where Jim Butcher invented a parking lot for Wrigley Field in Chicago that famously doesn't have public parking, but I'm wondering about smaller details of a city's makeup rather than famous monuments.

Specifically, I have a scene in a story that is supposed to be set in Washington D.C. The sequence begins in a rather close-packed urban area but ends in an abandoned building. What made me realize there was a potential problem was that unlike monuments or the broader makeup of a city, abandoned buildings aren't permanent fixtures and often get refurbished or torn down. For example, I found an abandoned coal-fire plant, an abandoned mall, and an abandoned warehouse in the area I am setting the scene, but all are being renovated as part of city revitalization efforts. The story is supposed to be "contemporary".

So my question is how much fudging of geographic details will readers allow in a setting, especially for something like an abandoned building that is liable to get torn down or renovated and I can't expect to be there long-term? That is, I don't need a specific abandoned building, but my concern is someone will look at my story and go "how can there be an abandoned building there, that's a highly gentrified area where land is at a premium?" Or putting an apartment complex in the suburbs or something along those lines.

  • I've seen snow capped mountains in the background of NYC in some movies.
    – Allan
    Aug 8, 2021 at 3:13

3 Answers 3


As someone who lives in the D.C. area, I can tell you that D.C. has a lot of renovations and construction going on at any given point (For the longest time, there was scaffolding all over the Capitol Dome when I was more frequently going into the city). D.C. is also unique in that it is a diamond/square shaped city with building ordinances that prevent high rise buildings from developing (popular myth is that buildings cannot be taller than the Washington Monument, which is not true. The cut off height was passed as law during a time when only the Washington Monument passed the height cut off... and the fact that it was built on the peak of a large hill helped make it even higher than the rest of it's surroundings.). It also has a grid like lay out (kinda... it's a very confusing grid with lots of circles... it was designed to make it difficult for foreign invasions to navigate and was a little too successful as even suburbia dwellers hate to drive in the confusing street system.).

D.C. locals like to joke that D.C. is "Hollywood for Ugly People" or "Hollywood for People who are Ugly on the outside, too." as the primary industry of D.C. is notoriously cutthroat, scandal-prone, and nationally discussed. D.C. also claims to have more spies per capita than any other location in the world (one must wonder how they got that figure since spies are supposed to not identify they are spies). All of this means that there is a lot of power and with power comes money and with money comes conspicuous consumption. Coupled with the lack of space (D.C. proper is pretty developed and the aforementioned high rise ban means it's not gonna grow up like New York or Out like L.A.) and you're looking at a city that is prone to redevelopment from gentrification as well as good ol' fashioned building upkeep.

It also means that D.C. is much more like European cities in that it's incredibly walkable. In fact, all the famous monuments and landmarks are all in one area (The Mall) which is a giant park that is traditionally bound by the Capitol Hill in the East, the White House grounds in the North, the Lincoln Memorial in the West, and the Jefferson Memorial/Tidal Basin in the South, with the Washington Memorial acting as a central feature (It's visible from all four of the building bounds.). The Western portion of the mall features most of the important museums (Or at least, the free museums) and most buildings behind them are offices for some government agency of some kind. Perhaps the most famous D.C. Building not on the Mall is the J. Edgar Hoover Buidling (FBI Headquarters), which even still is walking distance to the Mall (You can see the rear of the National Art Museum while walking past the 10 street face of the FBI Building). The other building missing from here is The Pentagon, which is technically not even in D.C. but in Arlington, VA. The area is serviced by 8 Metro Stops two of which (Metro Center and Gallery Place/China Town) are major transfer stations for all 6 lines (Red, Blue-Orange-Silver, Green-Yellow. Dashed lines use the same tracks in the city proper but will terminate at different locations in the suburbs) and another (Union Station) is a transfer station for regional train service, with D.C. being the southern most city in the busy North-East Corridor of U.S. Rail transportation (the only passenger rail system that's actually heavily used in the modern U.S.).

The area North of the Mall is home to a lot of development is prime real-estate so buildings are constantly being renovated and may be temporarily empty. If it also helps your setting, the area is also very empty during at night as most workers there are commuters, leaving only the tourists and, if TV and movies are to be believed, the spies and shady government informants who like to give away nefarious plans right near Mr. Lincoln (in reality, they would never do this... the Lincoln Memorial is quite pretty at night and there are still a massive amount of tourists on the steps even as the Metros are getting close to closing.

TL;DR: D.C. has plenty of empty or unused buildings at any given time near the important landmarks, so it shouldn't be any trouble to get your abandoned building somewhere near-by. D.C. residents will be more pissed off if your character takes the Metro to Georgetown (which has no service at all) or that it is permissible to stand on the left side of your escalators (there is an unwritten rule that the left side of the escalator is to be kept clear so people who prefer to walk down them can do so unimpeded. D.C. residents are rather passive-aggressive in enforcing this rule and treat violators with a level of ire normally reserved for rats and vermin.

  • 1
    Great description of DC. And yes, standing on the left on the Metro is one of the biggest no-nos around. Work that into the story for a bit of local color. Aug 11, 2021 at 18:56
  • 1
    @TerriSimon: Fun fact, Tokyo is the same way about standing on escalators but in their case it's standing on the right that irks the locals. It's actually all of Japan because the more laid back Kyoto also had issue with this. I attributed the change of acceptable side to the fact they drive on the left too.
    – hszmv
    Aug 12, 2021 at 11:43

I commend you for your greater attention to geographic detail than some authors and moviemakers I can think of.

Possibly you could contact the Washington, DC Chamber of Commerce for help in finding a currently abadoned building. I suspect that the Washington city government has a department, bureau, or agency that keeps track of abandoned buildings, so they might be able to help you find one. It is possible you could ask at websites about Washington DC, especially ones were residents might complain about eyesores in their neighborhoods.

Did you try going through the neighborhood with Google Maps and Street View looking for buildings which seem abandoned?

And if you can't find any real suitable abandoned buildings in your desired neighborhood, you can set your story in an alternate universe (it is my opinion that the vast majority of fiction happens in alternate universes) where a real building that was once abandoned but now is being rehabiliitated is still abandoned.

Or your can invent an imaginary abandoned building in that neighborhood.

Or you could find a still abandoned building in another part of Washington, DC and rewrite your story as little as possible to plausibly set that scene in that abandoned building in that partof the city.

And whatever you chose, you can pride yourself on being a lot more concerned with geographic and ohter accuracy than many writers and movie makers, some of whom got rich and successful. You are a lot closer to the kind of writer I prefer than perhaps the majority of writers.

A very few of the very many examples I have noticed follow.

I remember a science fiction short story published a few decades ago about a scientific detective type character, which had scenes set in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The detective's office was in King of Prussia, PA, and he said that Lititz in Lancaster county was 60 miles east of King of Prussia. Sixty miles east of King of Prussia should be in New Jersey - according to Google Maps, near Howell Township and a few miles inland.

Lititz is about 50 miles west of King of Prussia. There was also an assay offic ein lititz. I associate assay offices with old west prospectors and ore samples. Would there be one in a modern small town like Lititz?

There was an episode in the sitcom Family Ties where Alex Keaton's girl friend was on a train and he tried to catch up with her. There was a scene in the train station waiting room at Lancaster, PA. And naturally it looked different than than the actual waiting room.

Since you are interested in Washington, DC, the science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) had a car chase there, where the streets used were mentioned. I wonder whether tracing the route on a map would be possible or if the streets and intersections aren't all real.

The goofs section for The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) at IMDB says:

When Helen and Klaatu are going to the professor's, the army states that their cab is heading northwest on Connecticut at Columbia Rd. The cab then passes under the Dupont Circle underpass on Connecticut AV. The underpass is south of Columbia Rd, not north. Also, if the professor lives near the State Department, they are going in the wrong direction. The State Department offices are south of Columbia Rd.


The fat man running crying, "They landed in the Mall," is wrong. The Mall is a long relatively narrow strip of land stretching from the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.Yet Klaatu sets his saucer down in a square field with the South Face of the White House clearly visible at the edge of frame. Furthermore, there are three baseball diamonds present: there are no baseball diamonds at that location.


And the noted television movie Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol had a scene set at the intersection of Vermont and Charles Streets, Philadelphia. It appears that Philadelphia has a Charles street, but no Vermont Street.

I once read that Frank Nugent, screenwriter of Fort Apache (1948) said that director John Ford had him read a bunch of books about the Apache Indian Wars and then told him to forget everying he read and write a good story.

Nugent remembered enough that all of the named Apaches in the film, Cochise, Geronimo, Diablo, Alchesy, and Satanta, were real people - but Satanta was actually a Kiowa.

But he certainly forgot a lot of geography. In the movie, Fort Grant and an Apache reservation are north of Fort Apache. Fort Apache was north of Fort Grant, and the northernmost Apache Reservatin in Arizona is the Fort Apache reservation.

In the movie Fort Apache is reached though a bunch of fictional places from the north, when it was actually reached from the south.

In one scene characters cross the Rio Bravo river from Arizona into Mexico. Rio Bravo is another name for Rio Grande, and the Rio Grande river is over a hundred mile from Arizona. And they cross the Rio Bravo at what looks a lot like the Grand Canyon, hundeds of miles north.

The actual Arizona-Mexico border is much flatter with valleys and low mountain ranges which are more north-south than east-west.

A Distant Trumpet (1964) was filmed hundreds of miles away in a differnt type of landscape, but the scene where where Apaches flee into Mexico and General Quaint halts his persuit at a not obvious border is much more realistic than Fort Apache (1948) with a misplaced Grand Canyon.

In Red River (1948) a 1850s wagon train to California passes close to the Red River of the South, the present border between Oklahoma and Texas - less than a day's ride from it. Even the southern trail to Califoria through New Mexico and Arizona passed one or two hundred miles north of the Red River, so the wagon train should have been lost and died of starvation before reaching Californa.

Three characters leave the wagon train and cross the Red River into Texas. According to movies, Texas was good only for cattle raising until oil was discovered. According to the movies, there aren't any farms in Texas, or cotton plantations whose owners made Texas join the Confederacy.

But in Red River (1948) the three travel hundreds of miles thorugh Texas, reaching the Rio Grande river, before they find a place good enough for their cattle ranch. Which makes you wonder what Texas was good for in Red River (1948) if good sites for cattle ranches were that hard to find.

In The Commancheros (1961) a riverboat takes several days to travel from Louisiana to Galvaston, Texas. There are no rivers from Louisiana to Galvaston, only the Gulf of Mexico. Nobody would dare take a riverboat acrsss the Gult of Mexico to Galvaston, where thousands of people were killed in a hurricane in 1900.

After arriving at the seaport of Galvaston, a seemingly short trip takes characters into an arid desert which looks too barren even for the cattle ranches it seems to have, and whch was actuallyy filmed hundreds of miles from Galvaston.

And even the latest western movies aren't much more accurate. In Hostiles (2017) a cavalry officer in 1892 is assigned the task of taking a Cheyenne warrior and family, presumably from a reservation in The Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma), to his home in Montana. On the way they meet a band of hostile Comanche warriors!

There weren't any hostile Comanche warriors in 1892. A date 20 years earlier in 1872, would make hostile Comanche warriors on the route north to Montana much more Likely.

And the logical route to take in 1892 would be to go to the nearest railroad station, take a train east, take another train north, and take a third train west to the closest station to their destination. That would avoid hundreds of miles of riding. Even in 20 years earlier, in 1872, with much fewer miles of railroad in the west, that would be the logical route to take.

These examples show that western movies move rivers, canyons, mountains, plains, deserts, forest, railroads, villages, towns, cities, forts, Indian tribes, and everything else around the map with no regard for actual geography.

And don't forget the 1968 movie inaccuately titled Krakatoa East of Java.

I once read an introduction by Isaac Asimov to a book by L.Sprague De Camp where Asimov praises De Camp's research for his historical fiction. But in Lest Darkness Fall (1939) a time traveler appears near the Pantheon in 530s Rome. Asking directions to the forum, he is told to take a specific street and then turn left at a specific intersection, when actually he should have been told to turn right. Arriving at the Foruma anyway, he notices that the columns have been removed from the temples in the forum. And as far as I can tell all the temple columns in the forum remaind standing in place for centuries afterwards.

And also see: https://writing.stackexchange.com/questions/54914/distorting-historical-facts-for-a-historical-fiction-story/54936#54936[2]

I commend you for your greater attention to geographic detail.


In my own books I go to elaborate lengths to be accurate, and the readers of the Advance Review Copies of my first book gave me no end of corrections, geographical and otherwise.

All that aside, you said "The story is supposed to be 'contemporary'." Why? Why not fix the date as, say, October 2021? Even if you pick a building that's abandoned NOW, it might not be in a few years, and you still want the book to be relevant in 2031, don't you?

You can't possibly be sure nothing will change, so why not be accurate and consistent as of Date X, and then convey X to the reader, somehow or other?

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