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Writer and children's librarian Lisa Chellman discusses books, writing, and life.
1. Devil's in the Details

When I was a kid, I never fully forgave James Howe for writing, in Morgan's Zoo, that one of the animals was to be shipped to the zoo in Kalamazoo. There was no zoo in Kalamazoo, as I knew darn well; the nearest zoo was in Battle Creek. My parents explained poetic license, but to me it was just wrong.

In contrast, I never got bent out of shape about John Bellairs making up a whole new Michigan town, which he called New Zebedee, in The House with a Clock in Its Walls.

Why the difference? I guess it was perceived intent. I knew John Bellairs hadn't made up a whole new town by accident, but there was nothing to suggest James Howe hadn't just made a mistake when it came to the (lack of) zoo in Kalamazoo.

The story's in the details, as I tell my little creative writing charges at the library. But where's the line between making up the details (John Bellairs) and getting the details wrong (James Howe)?

As readers, we don't blink at Ray Bradbury's invented Green Town, Illinois; M. E. Kerr's Seaville, New York; William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County; Sinclair Lewis's whole freaking state of Winnemac. We accept them as surely as the Land of Oz or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They're simply part of the fantastic landscape created in the pages.

But Audrey Niffenegger has her characters in The Time Traveler's Wife get off at the Western Avenue Brown Line el stop instead of the more logical Rockwell stop, and readers are all over it like wolves on a wounded deer.

This question of geography and accuracy is a thorn in my side when it comes to my own writing. I feel like if I set my books in real-life locations, I have to be meticulous about getting every, single solitary detail right, from names of streets to schools to restaurants and beyond. Or I could avoid the whole dilemma by carving out a bit of literary space-time and plunking in my imaginary city where no one else can tell me what's what.

Is there middle ground? I've been arguing with myself about that—whether I could set my stories in a real-life city but invent specifics within that city. Obviously fiction writers constantly do this with characters, putting them in real-life cities though they'll never be found by Directory Assistance. How many geographic specifics can a writer change and have the setting still feel authentic?

Okay to add/change (in my current line of thought):
- Streets
- Restaurants and stores

Not okay to change:
- Colleges and universities
- Landmarks or geological features

Not sure about:
- Schools

In 95% or more of the books I read, it probably doesn't matter. They're set in towns so bland I can't be bothered to check whether they're real. And even if they are, what are the chances I'll ever go there for myself to fact-check? So maybe I'm overthinking this—but I'm sure that no one readers a book set in a real-life city more closely than the residents of that city. (Poor Audrey Niffenegger!)

What do you think: where is the line between an author making stuff up and an author getting things wrong?

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