I'm preparing some material because I have the intention of writing a book. I'd do this in every type of work, but considering that I'm writing Crime Fiction, this is even more important.

I've decided already some things: main characters, victim, murderer, even the motive.

But I've come to a great wall that is now blocking my work: the setting. I've checked around in many sites and there's who suggests to go with an invented town or get material on real cities.

I don't except you to suggest me what to do, but I'd like you to give me some tools to help me decide. There's the city layout, then the actual laws in force in that country (I don't want to set it in my country), etc. So, what should I be considering?

5 Answers 5


'Setting' is not the same as 'place' or 'world.' All of which are close enough in definition but since you said crime fiction I think what you meant is the setting, even though you go on to say 'the place' but let's cut to the chase and see what's going on here: Edit: I swear I'd read 'place' somewhere in the Q!


This's a subset of 'setting.'

The 'place' of your story should only be unique within its world (also called history or timeline) so that it's just one of several places that exist in that world. So it could be the 'State of Janedonia', in the US but still be considered not real.

Why? Because the 'invented' place automatically places a screen between the reader and what they already know about where this place should be (here, the US); the reader knows what to expect because you gave the cue that the place is like a real place but not it, but they still wouldn't feel cheated if some things are a bit off from real life in the place in which you set you story; (the big place being the US, the small 'focal' place being the State of Janedonia).


This's the one you want.

A step up from the 'place' of the story is its 'setting.' The setting is, figuratively, four-dimensional while the place is only 3-d. So you have time travel with important/famous/well-known/highlight points in history and culture that could be easily adapted. You would need to do the research to accurately describe, say, the Cold War era but the reader will, again, know what to expect. Although the template here is both bigger than the place's and more distant in feel.

The 'setting' shouldn't be radically different from the norms of your world, though. You could set the story in a space center where the protagonists never contact Earth, but it's still 'within our world.'

Which brings us to:


This's a superset of 'setting.'

Here you can make radical changes, make magic replace electricity as the driving force of the tools of the inhabitants of your world, or make it analytic much as physics is here. But with differences; for example, the protagonists can invent new spells and put new rules that change how their world works.

Then make us a parallel universe where we're nearing the same level of sophistication with technology, except that technology is separate from us here while in the other universe all the people's machines and other contraptions are driven by the mere fact that their bodies/souls/essences exist and have infinite energy in the form of magic.

Even social norms can be changed here. You only have to show it. Then subtly point it out so no one misses it.

Depending on what you're going for, whether it be suspense or build-up suspense (where you hit the readers hard and hook them/or start slow and expose), you will want to show the reader how your outer most 'content-bubble' is different from their world. If you're writing fantasy, you'll start by painting the world, if it's science fiction then the setting (sometimes the world) would be the starting point, and if it's comedy or romance then most of the time it's the place.

Crime fiction I find to be much more intriguing if the setting is exotic in itself. But again you might be going for the fear-factor in these stories (as opposed to the detective journey taking the spotlight) where a different setting could be either a blessing or a curse.

  • 2
    I want to +10 this answer. Brilliant. Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 12:01
  • Thank you Mussri, this is a really well-thought answer, but I'd like to point out a couple of things: I'm writing crime fiction so I'll be sticking to the real world, no weird magic or effects. Not because I don't like it, and I thought of setting it in some parallel world, but I wanted to write crime fiction, like Murder, She Wrote, or Poirot, or you know what I mean by now. :D So "the world" thing is out of my thoughts now. My concern was the place. Maybe I could choose a real city and just put fictional buildings. I don't know yet...
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 9:22
  • @Alenanno, Aaaah! Well, you can change things around a bit, add a tinge of steampunk maybe and so on, then wrap all of this in a familiar society and a familiar place. In other words, give your place a name, imagine it was identical to a real place you know, spice it up as you go along.
    – Mussri
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 14:27
  • Sorry! But I always think of 'detective/crime fiction' as being in a surreal (most often steam-punk) setting/world... It's just how I see it so I think you need to think "Do I want it realistic or real?" to decide if you want a place or a setting. Go for the simple option if you want to focus on the detective/victim journey.
    – Mussri
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 14:30
  • @Mussri Think about Murder, She wrote with Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher or Hercule Poirot from Agatha Christie's books, or Sherlock Holmes. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 14:41

You can do both. You can start from an existing city (maybe give it a new name) and change the areas which do not fit (GTA comes into mind).

If you have already an idea for the setting like "Oh, that should play in New Orleans" because of the (cliched) reputation of that city, then go with that. Your New Orleans does not need to be square inch by square inch like the real one. You want to set atmosphere in your book, not a geographical map.

Generally if you can't decide, make plans for both options, what you have to do to accomplish the goal. Then pick the more frightening. The bigger the road block in your mind, the more your subconscious wants to get over it.

  • Interesting points... Thanks, I'll think over this. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 23:07
  • John, I definitely liked what you said here: "You want to set atmosphere in your book, not a geographical map", but I need a clarification over something else. What did you mean by "Then pick the more frightening"? Didn't understand it.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 9:19
  • @Alenanno, it has to do with a psychological aspect of being creative which is hard to explain (at least for me). The more you are afraid of to do something, the more likely it is that this thing is exactly what you should do. Conventional wisdom suggests to take the easier path if you have the choice between two options. But the easier path is not as satisfying as the difficult one. That means, what you really want to do is in most cases the difficult (frightening) alternative. Read "The War of Art" by S. Pressfield to get the idea. Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 9:37
  • Nice theory, and now that you explain it, it's kind of familiar as a way of thinking, and I think I agree.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 11, 2012 at 9:48

Whatever works best for your story.

If you can make it work in a real setting and you know or can research the setting well enough to make it work, do that.

If your story requires something which doesn't exist, is or is not against a particular law, needs a river to be here rather than there, etc. then invent a place.

  • 2
    +1 for research if you use a real place. Someone who reads your book is bound to be familiar with the area, unless it's a really uncommon read (which probably isn't what you want) or you place the story in a really out-of-the-way place (and even then there's no guarantee, particularly these days when even small, generally unknown, niche authors can find an international audience). And if it's an actual place that the reader is familiar with, even small mistakes are going to break suspension of disbelief, and that is going to show through in their response to the book.
    – user
    Commented Oct 12, 2012 at 12:30

This is an interesting question and which I find very pertinent. As the OP said, there are two options:

1. to choose a real town

This works best if you know the place very well or, alternatively, if you can visit the town regularly. It's still a good idea to study some maps and have an idea of traffic and such. If you can't visit the town, try a virtual tour on Google maps (navigating the photos as if you were driving up and down the streets) and study maps, listen to the local radio to get a feel of traffic, etc.

You can still invent businesses and even streets, or you can have your characters visit real restaurants and live in a specific house.

Personally, this is my favourite approach. Nevertheless, I sometimes invent a house, a street or the occasional business.

- your readers know you take details seriously and that you respect facts
- there's the thrill (for the writer and the reader) of knowing you can go to that town and trace the characters' movements
- you still have the freedom to invent a bit (but do write a note somewhere to inform the readers)
- works best if you want to set the events in a big, famous city... or if you're using a very small place (like your neighbouring village), since it's easier to research it

- it's a lot of hard work
- it's a bad idea to have negative events happen in real businesses (e.g. a hotel room poorly cleaned, rude waiting staff at a restaurant, ...)
- if you can't visit the place, you risk portraying it wrongly
- it's a lot of hard work

2. to invent a town

If you have better things to do than spending your time researching, invent a town. However, if you're aiming to set the story in a big famous city, inventing one isn't usually the best option. Even if you're going overboard and creating an extra county, province, state or even country, you still should mention real places in the neighbourhood of your invented town. It will help to ground your invented town in a real country/state rather than in a 'once upon a time' kind of setting.

I still advise to plan the town in as much (or as little) detail as necessary. E.g. shade off an area for the rich neighbourhood without bothering to map out streets, and detail the businesses lining the main street which your characters will often walk up and down.

- works best for small to average towns
- you don't need to worry about research
- you can invent details for the town as you need them instead of planning the whole thing from the beginning
- greater flexibility

- it's easy to lose track of details and give contradicting descriptions, so one really must invest in a map, even if only to draw it as the story advances and more places are invented
- ... there's no thrill of dealing with real places where one can actually follow the characters' movements? At least for me, that's a disadvantage.

You also mention

the actual laws in force in that country

Well, that does require more detailed research. There's no way around it, I'm afraid. I suggest choosing a country that is easy to research.


One thing I enjoy is seeing real cities in a fantasy world. Some argue that you have to be careful of how you portray the city in terms of local business but that isn't 100% accurate. Depending on how realistic you chose to be, you could just use the city name, even a little culture influence (NYC for example is a bit different than say Paris). This way you get both of creating and using an existing city. Think Gotham City in Batman only the roles are slightly reversed. It is modeled after Chicago though the city name and local businesses are all changed.

Just depends how realistic you want to be with it. Is the character walking down the street describing shops as they scan the scene? Might be better then to make up a city because you would have a hard time being able to explain that if you haven't seen it first hand. Yes we have google maps with street view but that doesn't provide the feel of the area like you could if you were familiar with it.

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