I’m in Ur Town, Messin’ With Ur Geography: How Author Jayne Denker Researches Setting

Today’s post was written by author Jayne Denker, whose new romcom Your New Best Friend is now available on Amazon.

Let me just own up to something right up front: Authors are weird. We have superstitions and tics and habits that make perfect sense to us, if not to the rest of the world. My most troublesome tic is my inability to write stories unless they’re set in places of which I actually have first-hand knowledge. If I’ve lived there, gone to school there, visited family there, or—to a lesser extent—vacationed there, thumbs up. If I haven’t, it’s a no-go for me.

How limiting is that?! I mean, I’ve never been to Paris, so my romantic couple can’t honeymoon there? Nope—I just can’t bring myself to be annoyingly vague about their surroundings or, worse, guess wrong and have people who have been to Paris call me out as a fraud. Sorry, newlyweds! This even applies to other parts of my own country (I live in the U.S.), and don’t get me started on places that have very different cultures from mine—India, Thailand, Kenya, Chile, Antarctica…they’re all off limits for my stories, because “getting it right” when it comes to a very different culture is even more difficult.

Oh sure, I could talk to people who have been somewhere I haven’t, or hop on Google Earth and call it good. I know a lot of authors do that, and it works for them. But I strongly believe that if I haven’t set foot on the soil I want to illustrate, I can’t make it real to a reader. Fortunately, I’ve been to enough places that I haven’t exhausted my own experiences…yet!

My sixth romcom, Your New Best Friend, published on July 25th, is an updated version of Jane Austen’s Emma, set in the U.S. I decided that a small town named after the main character’s ancestor would be a good way to denote her societal pedigree. I’d just come off a small-town series set in the Catskills, so I needed an entirely different landscape. A seaside town would work, I thought. I’d been to the North Shore of Massachusetts several times and enjoyed Rockport. I knew it would make a great basis for the book’s setting, Abbott’s Bay.

Unfortunately, although I “visit” Rockport every time I watch the movies The Love Letter and The Proposal (when it was a stand-in for Alaska, of all places—gotta love those digital mountains), I lived in Massachusetts a long time ago, and I hadn’t been back since. I had no idea if my memories aligned with what the area is like now. What to do? Road trip!

I packed up the essentials, including my 11-year-old son, and headed east on I-90. Naturally, my kid thought I was nuts, but he’s used to his author-mom’s eccentricities. Plus he got a visit to Boston and Salem—in October, no less! witches, baby!—so he was patient with his weirdo mother when she walked all over Rockport, saying, “Ooh, this shop would be perfect for that scene…Ooh, this street is so cute…Wait, can you walk to the beach from here?…Let me take a few pictures…”

Even though I always fictionalize my locations, as opposed to using an exact representation of a town, so I can have more freedom to invent what I need for the story, I collected lots of details that affected my story. On a purely physical level, I was able to get some geographic perspective, which you just can’t get on Google Earth. What seems close is, in fact, mighty far away, or vice versa—you think something’s at a distance, but in person, it’s right up your nose. Hills and valleys are only theoretical; you can only know whether a hike is steep enough to make you gasp for breath in person. I also got ideas for restaurants, shops, grocery stores, churches, schools, police and fire departments, beaches…how a town is put together, in other words.

Because it’s not just about a location’s appearance, but the feel of the place, that’s important to get right, I read flyers for local events, watched both car and pedestrian traffic, and eavesdropped on conversations, to get answers to questions like…what’s the weather like, and how does it affect the area? Where do people work? If they commute, how do they get where they’re going? What are the best restaurants? Where do people get their coffee in the morning? Where are the schools, and do kids walk or ride a bus or both? What sorts of shops are in town—small or large? If they’re small, where do they do their major shopping? What’s the tourist trade like and how do the residents feel about it? Most important, what are the people like—how do they carry themselves, what do they sound like, are they homey or aristocratic or a bit of both?

I traveled around during the day and scribbled notes to myself as Abbott’s Bay began to take shape in my mind. I chose an inland location for my main character’s carriage house, as well as where on the beach my hero’s oceanfront house is located. Then, to make things work for my story, I decided to move the beach closer to town. Why not? It’s fun playing God—ask any author! Not content to just move entire chunks of geography, I also turned the B&B we stayed at into a larger inn with a fancier restaurant and moved it up the coast a bit. I added a spit of land to the north of town and plopped a lighthouse on it. I wedged a cute residential street, with houses stolen from Salem, in the middle of the commercial district. I put an ice cream stand on the pier.

So Abbott’s Bay is entirely different, but Rockport is there underneath it all. Look closely when you read Your New Best Friend, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of it!

Jane Austen’s Emma made a habit of meddling in other people’s lives, but Melanie Abbott has turned it into a cottage industry.
As “modern American royalty” living in Abbott’s Bay, Massachusetts, a town founded by her ancestor, Melanie Abbott feels it’s her right—even her duty—to employ her uncanny knack for knowing exactly what everyone needs to improve their lives. She eagerly shares her wisdom and insight with her friends and neighbors . . . whether they ask for it or not. If only Conn Garvey, her dearest friend, agreed with her.
Connacht Garvey has been keeping an eye on Melanie since they were kids. A bit older, far more level-headed, and infinitely patient, Conn feels it’s his duty to pull Melanie back from whatever cliff’s edge she’s about to wander off. Conn thinks Melanie is egotistical, self-centered, irritating, infuriating, relentless, ridiculous . . . and irresistible. Not that Conn’s confessed to that last one. Yet.
When Melanie impulsively starts up a new advice-giving business, it’s an instant hit. Conn doesn’t approve, as usual, which is too bad, because Melanie’s convinced he needs her VIP package. (Of advice!) His coffeehouse is showing signs of financial trouble, plus his toxic ex is suddenly sniffing around, acting like she’s having second thoughts about their breakup. Will their friendship be blown to bits because of Melanie’s meddling . . . or will it become something more?

Jayne Denker divides her time between working hard to bring the funny in her romantic comedies and raising a young son who’s way too clever for his own good. She lives in a small village in western New York that is in no way, shape, or form related to the small village that’s the setting for her Marsden novels, Down on Love, Picture This, and Lucky for You. When she’s not hard at work on another romcom, the social media addict can usually be found frittering away startling amounts of time on Facebook (Jayne Denker Author) and Twitter (@JDenkerAuthor). Stop by her blog, http://jaynedenker.com, and say hi.

How RomCom Author Jayne Denker Researches Setting >> writing tips, writing advice, publishing tips, writing a book, women's fiction, chick lit, must read books, beach reads

About Meghan

Meghan is a novelist, blogger, and copyeditor fueled by coffee and red lipstick. When she's not typing away you can find her reading, organizing, or watching old sitcoms and superhero movies with her husband, cat, and baby-to-be.

Leave a Reply