Familiar Territory

I’m sometimes sad I will in all likelihood never see a romance set in my hometown. The publishing market in Germany being what it is, there are not many German-set romances printed at all, and those that are tend to be chick lit books set in cool places like Munich or Hamburg or on Sylt. The only novel I have come across that set in the area where I live is a historical novel set during the period when they were burning witches, and I have no wish to read about that. There are a couple of mysteries set in the town I was born in, and I remember the fun I had, while reading them, tracking the detective’s steps and comparing my own vision with that presented in the book.

I’m more fortunate with places I have been to on holiday. When I can, I pick at least one romance for my holidays that is set in the exact place I am visiting. It’s a great way of enhancing my enjoyment of the atmosphere, and if it’s a well-researched historical novel, also a great way of learning about the history of the place. Thus I love reading books set in Cambridge, England, because my sister lived there for a number of years and I visited her often. I was delighted to discover the Regency and early Victorian romances by Michelle Styles that are set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and surroundings, as I spent some months there as a student. And I absolutely adore everything Mary Stewart has ever written, as she absolutely captures the atmosphere of the places she describes, be it Provence (Madam, Will You Talk), Delphi (My Brother Michael), or, again, Northumberland (The Ivy Tree).

The downside, of course, is what happens when you are not happy with the descriptions of a place you know so well, or if the descriptions are downright inaccurate. When I first read A Lover’s Victory by Caroline Courtney, which is set in Vienna, I was really annoyed by the fact that the heroine crossed the Danube when she arrived. I had been to Vienna the year before, coming from the West as the heroine did, and you just don’t cross the river. It’s on the North and East of the road you travel. So that was one book spoilt for me through faulty geography.

Now I sometimes wonder about books set in places that I have never been to that convey a strong sense of place. My all-time favorite mystery series is Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series, set in San Francisco. I love the atmosphere she creates but now and then I can’t help wondering what a San Francisco native would make of it. The same applies to the New York described in Meg Cabot’s books, and the New England of Charlotte MacLeod’s mysteries.

How do you like reading books that are set where you live? Have you got any examples of books that perfectly capture the place, or others that go horribly wrong? Do you try to read books set where you go on holiday? Any recommendations here? And does inaccurate geographic detail spoil a book for you?

-Rike Horstmann

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15 Responses to “Familiar Territory”

  1. LinnieGayl says:

    Rike, I’m completely obsessed with reading books set in places I’m traveling to. Before any extended trip, I like to read a few books that are set in the place I’m going to be visiting. Generally it works for me. I went to Santorini a few years ago, and brought along an old Barbara Michaels book (The Sea King?). It really didn’t work for me at all. It described the island as rather primitive, with some pretty scary people and traditions. Maybe it was like that in the early 1960s, but definitely not in this century.

    There are no romances set where I live now, but I read a number of them set in Chicago while I lived there. Many just annoyed me as they really didn’t get the flavor of the city correct, or made glaring errors (not SEP, I always thought she had Evanston, Naperville, and the city spot on). However one book that particularly struck me was Susan Donovan’s Knock Me Off My Feet. Her heroine could have been following me around, she went to so many of the places I went on a daily basis.

  2. Danielle D says:

    Most of the books that I have read that take place in Chicago or one of the suburbs have been correct. I like the fact that they know the right streets that intersect or when they mention a restaurant/hotel/church they have the right streets for them. But what really scores big points with me is when they mentioned a suburb and they nail the streets/expressways to get there. Beth Kery — Wicked Burn nailed the City of Chicago and the suburbs to a T.

    If I read a book and found an inaccurate geographic detail I personally do not think that it would spoil my read nor give it a lower grade in my mind but I would know that the author did not do her research when she wrote the book.

  3. library addict says:

    I prefer to read books set in places I am unfamiliar with.

    I have difficulty reading books set in Las Vegas because authors so often get things wrong, wrong, wrong and it takes me right out of the story.

    I haven’t read many books set in South Bend, Indiana where my parents are both from. Jennifer Greene wrote one last year (Blame It on Paris) and though some of the places mentioned had the correct names, there were some glaring errors and a bunch of nitpick-type ones. She kept mentioning the shopping on Grape Road as if it were world famous. It is where the only mall is, but Grape Road is actually in the neighboring town, not South Bend. And there was a bit about the hero’s father having paid to have a hill made for his house when the landscape is full of them naturally. Yes, there’s lots of flat land for growing corn, but they also have plenty of hills. There were just so many things like that which I’m sure would not have bothered me if I didn’t know the area. But I was barely able to get through the book because of those kinds of missed/off the mark details. And I normally love Jennifer Greene, so it made me sad.

    Merline Lovelace actually wrote a book set partly at RAF Lakenheath in England (IIRC it was one of the books in her Cleo North trilogy) that I enjoyed because it made for a nice trip down memory lane. And it was obvious the author had been there. If I read a book set in or around the Cambridge area I would probably feel the same. But it has been a while since I‘ve lived there, so I wouldn’t necessarily catch too many off details. The same with places I’ve visited in the past but haven’t lived there day-to-day, so vacation destinations are usually okay.

    Inaccurate geographical details bother me more in contemporaries than historicals. I think that is because I’m more able to lose myself in the world the author creates with historicals. Whereas in a contemporary the setting is more recognizable.

  4. SandyH says:

    I live in southwestern Virginia. Books may be based on the geographical area but not really on specific towns. I loved Sharyn McCrumb’s two science fiction books. Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) and Zombies of the Gene Pool (1993), two satirical novels set in the world of science fiction conventions and fandom. The university setting is a disguised Virginia Tech. I have lived near Baltimore and the Eastern shore so I could easily follow the action in Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games.

  5. Jane O says:

    The thing that always makes me laugh when I read books set in New York City is the way the characters always manage to find a parking place right where they want. And no one ever has to move the car because of alternate side of the street parking.
    Now there’s fantasy for you!

  6. Jessa Slade says:

    I’m not too picky on the Mapquesting details as long as the tone is right. When people write about the Pacific Northwest, they always talk about the incessant rain and gloom, when actually summers are amazing here — bordering on utopic, I tell you :) But I don’t mind the constant references to everpresent mildew because the MOOD is essentially correct for the story being told.

    Plus, with my haphazard housekeeping skills, I have no room to protest references to everpresent mildew. Sigh.

  7. Jessica says:

    I’m from San Francisco, and Marcia Muller does get it right, which is nice. She used to live in the Bay Area, I think, and now lives up in the Mendocino area, I believe. So do enjoy her books…the neighborhoods (Bernal Heights, Glen Park, etc.), the Embarcadero and piers, and other areas she mentions are all real. The house Sharon McCone “lives” in is about a block from where my sister lived for a couple years.

    I hate it when writers have clearly not been to where they’re writing, and there are obvious errors (especially the ones that would be solved with 10 minutes of research).

  8. Andrea says:

    My hometown, Ottawa, Canada, doesn’t seem too popular a setting for romance novels. I suppose our MPs just don’t seem too sexy… ; )

  9. Corinna says:

    I’ve never seen a romance set in my tiny hometown between Houston and Austin (yet) but heaven knows there are plenty of other Texas towns that have been represented in the romance genre. As a fifth generation Texas native, I’ve read several novels where the landscape was described very well—but I’ve read many, many more that missed the mark by a wide margin. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about a ranch in central Texas with duststorms and tumbleweeds. (Sorry, folks. Wrong part of the state for either.)

    I once read that with a historical set in England, English readers can immediately spot an American writer. I can believe that, because I think it’s the same with Texas stories. If you are born and bred here, you’re going to instantly spot a writer from, say, New York City. It doesn’t mean they aren’t a great writer. And it doesn’t necessarily spoil the story for me. But there are certain flavors and nuances of places and people that simply can’t be picked up during a few days or weeks of research, and “outsiders” who get it right are few and far between.

    Because of that, I’d usually rather read stories with settings in a place I don’t know as well. It’s easier to get lost in a story when I’m not giggling about a lack of trees or rivers and lakes in east Texas, or the “flatness” of the landscape in El Paso.

    Still, I’d like to say that, even if I giggle, the author might still be able to come across with a story that I’ll heartily enjoy, so I won’t say that her “misses” will totally ruin it for me.

  10. LeeB. says:

    I don’t mind when authors mess up little details of far away places. But it SO annoys me when I read books set in Seattle and something is egregiously wrong — and the books are written by locals.

  11. AndyR says:

    In one of her recent trilogies (title ?) Nora Roberts had a character stop for coffee at a Sheetz. If you’re not from Pennsylvania, Virginia or Maryland know that Sheetz is a chain of convenience stores. Wonderful MTOs (Made to Order sandwiches). Since Sheetz stores are EVERYWHERE around central PA I definitely noticed the mention.

  12. Denise says:

    I also enjoy novels set in places I know or am going to visit. My eye was caught by the photo of Newcastle University at the top of Rike’s column. I live there myself and wasn’t aware of the novels by Michelle Styles set there. I’ve just enjoyed a historical whodunnit (with supernatural elements) set in Newcastle. It’s called Broken Harmony by Roz Southey – she works at the University – so I’m assuming the details are correct.

  13. RobinB says:

    Most of the books which I’ve read that are set where I live (South Florida) are by authors who live in the area, such as Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. (There are a lot more, but I’m having a senior moment and can’t remember their names!!) Unlike with many television shows set in South Florida, the books don’t jar your brain by juxtaposing a scene in say, South Beach with one in Fort Lauderdale (a good 40 miles away!).

  14. jeufille says:

    supers info, toujours de tres bon articles , merci pour ce post !

  15. reading science fiction books is the stuff that i am always into. science fiction really widens my imagination *;”

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