A story making the rounds among Sarasota’s authors lately is about a woman who went into a local governmental office asking for directions to Duma Key, the fictional setting of a Stephen King novel. Told there was no real place named Duma Key, the woman grew indignant at their ignorance. She knew the place was real because she had read about it in a book. She was mistaken, as all local residents well know — Duma Key is sort of loosely based on Casey Key, a real island where Stephen King owns a house — but her confusion was understandable.
Authors who create a strong sense of fictional place in their novels run the risk of making readers book airline flights to travel there. Authors who write about real places, but add fictional landmarks or institutions, run the risk of angering people who live in those real places and don’t like their cities changed in print. Even if we put notices in the front of the book that some of the places mentioned are purely products of our imagination, readers may decide that we’re either liars or people who haven’t carefully researched the places we’ve written about.
In my first Dixie Hemingway mystery, I made the mistake of locating a fictional business — Kitty Haven — on a real street on Siesta Key. I described the house as yellow, with white shutters and red cedar chip mulch in the front yard. I was greatly embarrassed when a group of readers made a special trip to Siesta Key to retrace Dixie’s route and sent me photographs of themselves standing in front of Kitty Haven. As it turned out, there was a house that looked exactly like the one I’d described on the street where I’d put it. Since then, I’ve been careful to locate businesses or homes on fictitious streets located between real streets. That gives me the authenticity I want without risking the privacy of people who live on Siesta Key. I’ve also made up entire subdivisions on Siesta Key, and placed them close to real neighborhoods. Tourists who want to look at Dixie’s haunts can therefore get a general sense of where a story took place, and residents of the Key get a kick out of knowing that a place isn’t really real, but they know where it would be if it were real.
Sometimes I get letters from people planning trips to Siesta Key asking if certain restaurants or beaches I’ve mentioned are real. I always answer as specifically as I can, but that gets a bit dicey too, because some places are based on real places but given different names. My rule for myself is that if a business establishment plays an important role in a story, I give it a fictitious name even if I’ve located it at the exact spot where a real establishment exists. That way, if a business owner might for some reason take exception to anything that happens fictionally in the establishment, it happened in a fictional place. On the other hand, everybody knows that the fictional place is based on a real place, so the establishment of the real place can benefit from the publicity. In the Dixie Hemingway books, for example, so much goes on in a local restaurant that I’ve named it the Village Diner but placed it in the same location as the real Village Cafe. Anna’s Deli, on the other hand, always gets a real mention because no events important to the plots happen there.
The most problematic thing for me is that I get so caught up in my stories that I sometimes forget that I’ve made up a street or a business. A few times when people have asked me if a place is “real,” I’ve had to stop for a minute and think before I could tell them. I imagine that’s sort of an occupational hazard shared by a lot of authors. If that woman who came to Sarasota looking for Duma Key should meet Stephen King and ask him, he might have to think a minute before he told her he’d made the place up.