Ethics of Setting a YA in a Real Life Small City

I live in Helena, Montana.  This is a relatively new development.  We moved here about two years ago from the Los Angeles area and it is very, very different.  Not necessarily different bad or good, just different.  Well, there are some things I miss, like really good ethnic food (I dream about it at night, people), and my Grammy and friends.  And there are some things that are fascinating and great, like seeing deer walking down your street or looking in your window.  But it is certainly different.

Even though it is the capitol of Montana, its still a pretty small city. We have two high schools, two Starbucks, and two McDonald’s – this is what makes us a major city and not a town, I guess (I’m making that up, I have no idea what qualifies anywhere to be considered a city).

A few months ago I had this really odd dream in which I clearly saw about 2/3 of the story idea for a YA paranormal romance.  This is different for me because I don’t consider paranormal or ghost stories my forte, but I saw it so clearly – even down to the main character’s name and the first line of the book.  And it has stuck with me.

The Helena Cathedral in the Snow
The Helena Cathedral in the Snow

So as I thought through the storyline and what I’d like to do with the project that has literally just fallen into my subconscious, I decided Helena would be the perfect setting for it.  However, this leaves me with some issues.  I usually set my novels in Los Angeles, which is HUGE and I can make stuff up like names of high schools or food joints, etc.  That is harder to do when you’re working with a real life small city…and I hate reading books set places where things DO NOT MAKE SENSE to that location.  My biggest pet peeve is when novelists set stories in L.A. but get things like freeways wrong or say that In-N-Out Burgers come with ketchup (they do not).

So I want to be true to the city – I’m setting the story here for a reason.  On the other hand, I don’t want anyone to be offended if I talk about mean girls that go to Helena High or any number of plot points which I am MAKING UP INSIDE MY HEAD. I don’t know if mean girls go to Helena High and I don’t really care – I’ve asked around and gotten a general lay out of the major student types – but that’s all sort of vague framework.  So, do I use Helena High and just stress that everything is purely fictional (and really, how many people in Helena will likely read this YA paranormal?) or do I risk authenticity and name the rival schools something different than Helena and Capitol?

Do you have any thoughts about books set in real places? I’d love to hear your tips on keeping authenticity while protecting the innocent!

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14 thoughts on “Ethics of Setting a YA in a Real Life Small City

  1. Mercer, Georgia, is based on a real town, but it is a fictionalized version of the town. I rename places and roads and buildings, and I totally make some of them up. I did not want to be held to complete geographic accuracy if it did not fit my story. I put this info on my website, so I have a disclaimer out there. So far, it has worked well. People who know the real town (not called Mercer btw) enjoy guessing what places I’m describing, but no one can say I’ve got it wrong because that could be the thing I totally made up.

    Wow. Ramble.

    1. This is a good ramble, though 😀

      My only concern with “making” places up is that there aren’t really all that many big cities in Montana and the fact that part of this story is set in our gold rush mansion district will give it away pretty fast.

      1. I don’t use the real names of anything because the feel of the place is more important to me than being photorealistic, which is where people start to get tripped up. There’s a place for accuracy of that nature, and for me, it isn’t in the setting. If I were writing your book, which obviously I’m not, I wouldn’t even call it Helena if it’s a concern to you. I’d call it Whateverville, a small city in Montana that is comparable to Helena and has lots of similar things, but is not meant to be a 100 percent accurate representation of the geography or people who inhabit the similar but not the same city called Helena.

      2. I know, I get super hung up on realism. It’s why I find it so hard to write straight historical, lol. My other concern is I was able to reason away the move for the MC (who is a GUY, omg writing first person male, OMG!) by having his dad work for the government. Because it’s the capitol, state & fed jobs are a huge portion of the population. But really, why would anyone move their high schooler to Montana from another state? Irresponsible parenting.

      3. In a strange way, this is why I have trouble with fantasy. For me, it’s easy for me to start with something real–a town, laws, a job, whatever–and then tweak it to suit my needs. I’m not interested in world building from scratch.

  2. I’m writing a series set in DC, which isn’t small like Helena is small but isn’t big like LA is big. Right now, I left in all the names of restaurants, etc. as they are in life because all of my alternatives sounded silly, but I’m not sure it will stay that way. The debates I have with myself are about the trade-off between verisimilitude and…slander? That’s too strong, but something like it. I don’t really have an answer, but just wanted to offer solidarity. (Also, I grew up in Great Falls and the idea of a Helena-set novel is cool to me.)

    1. Emma, yes, coming up with legit sounding fake names for places can be hard. I can barely name characters, but for some reason I find naming food joints easier. I do usually base them on real places, or places I wish did exist in certain locations, lol! And I always place them on a map so it makes sense when characters are coming and going – at least in my head.

      1. Yes, I can’t say growing up in GF seemed cool growing up, though now I’m like a novelty — the only Montanan many people will ever know!

        It’s funny that I wouldn’t hesitate to use certain real things in a book — the name of a famous restaurant maybe — but others seem off-limits. I would definitely change the name of a high school for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.

      2. All of my friends find me to now be a novelty 😉 I agree. I’ve felt the names of the high schools should definitely be changed, now wondering if the entire town needs to be.

        Who wants to rename Helena for me? 😮

  3. In GOING VINTAGE, Lindsey Leavitt set the story in Orange, CA which is a fairly small city. She made up the name of a high school so as not to offend anyone in Orange but used the local high schools as her inspiration (local parade tradition, etc.). I loved that I could “see” the parts of Orange she used in her book (our church is in Orange) but also liked that she could add her own color to the novel.

    1. That’s awesome that it’s set there…one of our best friends owns a historical house in Orange & is super involved in the preservation society and we used to do the whole International Street Fest thing every year. Did you know That Thing You Do was filmed in old town Orange? 😉

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