J. Kenner on Writing Great Settings


I’ve been reading a lot of SFF lately, which has made me think more deeply about the locations in which books are set. After all, Dune would hardly have made compelling reading without the planet Arrakis at the heart of the plot and the theme. And what would Game of Thrones be without Westeros or The Hunger Games without Panem? 

Those three are big stories with a deep anchor in broad politics and culture, with the first two locations (Dune and Westeros) being entirely fictional and Panem representing a fictional future for North America.

But it’s not just epic stories and dystopian fiction that need an anchor in locations. Sure, some tales can be set in actual, existing locations such as Manhattan, Los Angeles, or Austin. The small details might change but, hopefully, the author takes care to make the place recognizable. I’ve used all three of those settings for books, keeping the architecture of the city in place (Los Angeles for my Stark series, for example, and Austin in my Man of the Month series) and yet creating fictional sub-locations, like The Fix on Sixth, the bar that is the centerpiece of the Man of the Month series on Austin’s well-known Sixth Street.

With the billionaire-based, glitzy story that fills Stark world, I wanted a fast-paced location grounded in reality, so that the museums, buildings, and pace of the town could provide a mirror to the story of a woman moving to the big city to pursue her dream job, then finding herself wrapped up in a world of wealth and power as she battles her personal demons. 

The book also has a theme of loss and loneliness, and while big cities vibrate, they can also be lonely, scary places. Many of the locations are fictional, but some are real places … but changed. (Stark Tower, for example, is more or less the building I worked in when I moved to town as a new lawyer with one of the largest firms in the country.)

Men outside a bar

For the Man of the Month series—wherein the owners of a bar try to save it from financial ruin by holding a hot guy calendar contest—I sought a different vibe. I grew up in Austin, and the fictional version probably reflects the years that I know best, but even so, Austin is a laid back, friendly city. And definitely a little weird. (Check out the images of the guys in the bar that The Fix is based on and the guys on Austin’s Sixth Street!)

 Sometimes, however, an author doesn’t want to do Real Town + Added Value. Instead, the author wants to create a town that could be real. Stephen King’s Derry, Maine, for example, provides an outstanding location for many of his works. In the case of Derry, it’s a fictional town, but you can believe it exists. A place you could imagine visiting, renting a room in a BnB, and wandering the cute streets. Hopefully without stumbling across something terrifying. 

I’ve created similar fictional towns throughout my career, with the most well-known being San Diablo, the setting of my Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series. A town on the California Coast which, for certain architectural reasons, heroine Kate believes should be demon-free. So why did she just encounter a demon in Walmart? 

Recently, I’ve created another town that is fictional, but inspired by real locations. My newest book, My Fallen Saint released just a few days ago, and it’s set in the fictional town of Laguna Cortez between Los Angeles and San Diego. And, yes, it’s similar to Laguna Beach … similar, but different.

This story centers on the intersection of a billionaire philanthropist with dangerous secrets and the woman who comes home to Laguna Cortez to seek out answers to her uncle’s murder. When they cross path’s, things heat up and nothing is what it seems. 

The story is filled with passion, secrets, and danger, and I was intentional in the selection of the location. The town has a beach, yes, but it is set amid the cliffs. That geography is the product of physical conflict deep inside the earth. And these characters are very, very conflicted, not only about their own relationship, but about the other challenges that face them.

At the same time, there’s no denying that the beach is beautiful, but there’s hidden danger there, too. And hidden depth. The town reflects the characters and the characters the town, and though it’s not an epic location like Westeros, I can’t imagine this story being told anywhere else.

One of the best parts of crafting that location is exploring similar locations, and when I was in California last year to pitch a television series (I can’t wait until I can share that news!) I went down to Laguna Beach with friends and took some pictures to inspire locations and views. I used to live just outside of Laguna Beach … and, yeah, that trek definitely made me miss it!

Boats in a Marina
A house on a cliff seen between trees

The pictures here are rough starting points for the beach outside the Devlin Saint Foundation, the beach near Pacific Avenue (Laguna Cortez’s main thoroughfare), and the view from Devlin’s house on a cliff. (I also took pictures inside an open house, but I’ll refrain from posting those. Let’s just say … yeah. A billionaire would live there. Not huge, but also not small. Comfortable, but contemporary. I can see Devlin at those windows, looking down at the ocean, for sure!)

I hope you check out San Diablo (Carpe Demon) or Laguna Cortez (My Fallen Saint). But whatever you read, I know that you’ll be transported to a new land, big or small, mostly real or primarily imagined. 

Enjoy the journey!




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