How do you just make up a place? Do you conjure it out of thin air? Do you use a real place that you know well? Do you create a hybrid of a real place with things that you imagine?
Short answer: Yes.
Here´s how Maggie and Cassie got their home town.
I got a dog in 2004. Her name was Phoebe and she is the inspiration for Maggie´s dog in the Byrne Sisters Mysteries. My Phoebe was a Black Lab and the Phoebe in the book is a Golden Retriever. That was a nod to the two dogs I´ve had since Phoebe. (Loucy and Molly)
The setting of the book came to me while on walks with Phoebe. We´d go over to the river near my house and I´d stroll the bicycle/pedestrian path that ran alongside the river. Phoebe would run up and down the bank, sometimes jumping into the river itself to paddle around for a while and annoy the ducks. Dog walking can get boring and my mind wanders into really weird places when I´m bored.
I began to imagine the river bank as a great place to find a body in a mystery story. I stared at the river and explored the bank every day for months. I let my mind invent a victim and a main character for the book. The dog entered the story at some point, becoming an integral part of the finding of the body.
I didn´t want to set my story in Germany, though. I thought my readers would be more comfortable with an American setting. And, even though I´ve now lived in Germany longer than I ever lived in the US, I feel more comfortable writing about my hometown folks rather than my adopted home folks. The weather here is much like that in New England, where I grew up, and there is also a river very close to my childhood home. I had no trouble imagining the story while walking along the Main River and going home and transplanting it across the ocean to the Blackstone River.
And that was how Maggie came to live in a fictional former mill town in the Blackstone Valley.
The Main River, in (mostly) Hesse, Germany, is a tributary to the more famous Rhine River. Aside from similar flora along its banks, it doesn´t have much in common with the Blackstone River. The Main is predominantly a shipping river, connecting the Rhine with the Danube (via a canal at that end). It also has a couple of dozen hydroelectric power generators at many of the dams along its route. The Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers together form an important international trade route from the North Sea to the Black Sea. A route of over 2000 miles. It has a long trade route history and is still an important waterway today.
The Blackstone River is about 48 miles long and its heyday is behind it. But, the heyday it had was huge. It was used as a source of power for, and gave birth to, the American Industrial Revolution. But the factories, built on the banks and powered by the river, are long gone. New projects are underway to use the river to build environmentally sound, fish- and wildlife-safe, hydroelectric power generators, giving the river a whole new, healthier purpose.
Walking along the river in Frankfurt and studying the environment of the Blackstone Valley got me interested in medicinal and edible wild plants. While I was doing research for the first book, the idea for the second book took hold.
That´s how fiction writing works. One rabbit hole leads to another.