Tuesday, May 8, 2012

8. Where in the world are we? The novel’s geographical and local setting

For those who haven’t read Pandora’s Genes, or who have read it but couldn’t get a fix on the location, it happens mostly in the area in and around Washington, DC. I have lived and worked in the Washington area, and always liked it, especially the historical buildings and the beauty of the surrounding countryside.

I never said directly that is where the book takes place, but dropped plenty of hints, including the fact that the area ruled by the Principal is known as “the District.” . A number of scenes take place in the Principal’s private office, which has “rounded walls.” Other parts of the White House are featured too. I needed to get a detailed map of the White House for some of this material.

Many scenes take place on the Mall, which they actually do call “the mall” in the Pandora’s books, and a crucial scene occurs at the Lincoln Memorial, which is described but not named. Zach’s and Evvy’s travels take place through Maryland into Pennsylvania and Ohio.

A scene from the Prequel that made it into Pandora’s Children takes place in the Metro. The Principal and Zach begin their final assault on the corrupt, evil President from a distant station across the river. The only identification that survives are the letters A SQUA. Which were on the sign for Virginia Square, the station near my parents’ apartment in Arlington.

Even though I was familiar with all these locations, I consulted maps, and even made a map to keep track of where my characters were at any given time. After writing my first draft, I revisited the Mall area to refine my descriptions, though I never did visit the White House (“the Principal’s Great House”).

I’ve made use of maps and personal visits for other books as well, most notably my YA novel GOING TO SEE GRASSY ELLA, which takes place mostly in New York City (where I lived for 20 years). After finishing the manuscript, again I went back and double-checked my recollection, especially for the area where the girls encounter the seedy Elvin Hotel.

Even though your work is fiction, it’s important to be as true to life as possible. This will give your made-up parts added credibility. Anything that CAN be checked, MUST be checked. Maps are easy enough to find and to consult. But what about fictional places? Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at keeping it all as real as possible.


  1. Thanks for the interesting observations on a topic that has always confused me, viz., if fiction is "made up," then what's the pressing need to "keep it real?"

    I'm looking forward to more of your posts, since I'm now re-reading (and re-enjoying) both of the Pandora novels.

    1. I missed all the references! It never occurred to me that you were writing about a specific locale (though it did seem like eastern US hardwood forests).

  2. gh: Haha! Now you'll have to re-read them! My books are usually packed with stuff I don't explain. It's how I amuse myself.

  3. Good tips. My kids' novel (still in manuscript form) takes place in cyberspace, so it's a bit different for me. Even still, the location needs to resonate with kids' own experiences so I try to make it relatable to their personal sense of place.

  4. Most of my sf is on made-up planets, but I was an atmospheric scientist at the Geophysical Institute for most of my working life, and I used my knowledge of how planets and atmospheres work to set them up. Right now Jarn's Journal (on my blog Fridays) is set in Africa roughly 125,000 years ago, though I'm relying mostly on maps and my knowledge of archaeology.

  5. Danielle and Sue Ann, I like that both of you have ways to make your fictional places as real as possible. Some authors don't bother.