Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Miracle Mile, Benihana, and the Truth About a Novel's Setting

by Saralee Rosenberg

Readers often ask novelists what inspires their stories. And just like answering a test question correctly, they give writers the highest mark for this response: The plot was autobiographic  and/or it originated from someone’s real life incident. 

In other words, phooey on the made-up stuff. We want
“real life”, like what Jodi Piccoult writes about. And E.L. James.

Try as I might, I don’t understand this reaction. Fiction is not the same as biography or memoir. It is intended as an entertaining and engaging story that explores honest emotions through characters that are figments of the writer’s imagination. 

Or so I was told.

I learned a different lesson when I did a book tour for my debut novel, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE. Rather than creating a fictional setting, I chose Manhasset, an affluent suburb on Long Island's north shore. There were several reasons, but it was not lost on me that its main street, Northern Blvd, was home to "The Miracle Mile". Think Tiffany, Burberry and dozens of other luxury retailers that dote on the mink and manure set.

What can I say? My characters like to shop.

But when I spoke at local events and mentioned that I wasn't from Manhasset, in fact I was originally from Indiana... well! That confession really pissed people off. WHAT? But you described the area perfectly. You mentioned the Miracle Mile and Benihana. Maybe your husband is from here?

They simply did not want to accept that an outsider could depict their hometown without having been a present or former taxpayer. More to the point, they implied that they felt a little duped by my portrayal, to which I said, “Aren't you happy that I was so convincing?” Not according to locals. 

I disagree. 

A writer that remains true to a setting and honors its history, honors the reader as well. An authentic setting also tells the reader that the writer has taken great pains to create a true backdrop, thereby validating the characters and their journeys. In other words, a writer that bothers to get the facts straight about a location promises to be as diligent when exploring matters of the heart. No false notes allowed!
That is why integrity is the key that unlocks the writer’s door, not familiarity with the best place to grab dinner. Although truth be told, I’m still a huge fan of the Hibachi steak at Benihana. Ah! Research!

Saralee Rosenberg is the author of A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, CLAIRE VOYANT, FATE AND MS. FORTUNE, and DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD (Avon/HarperCollins). Her latest project is a novel for younger readers, THE MIDDLE SCHOOL MEDIUM. Visit her website.


  1. I love The Miracle Mile! Of course I can't shop there lol but I sure do love to just 'breathe in' the atmosphere. As a writer I couldn't agree with you more. As a reader, though, I would never be upset to find out an author didn't live in the area where the story took place. On the contrary, I would be pleased that they took the time to really get to know it. My favorite novels often are the ones that immerse me in the setting - the shops, the parks, the cafes. I love when that happens. BTW, A Little Help From Above is an all time favorite and it sits on my keeper shelf :D

  2. I cheer and toss roses when an author describes a real location accurately, even if she isn't from there. When an author gets a real place cheers or roses. You deserve cheers and roses, Saralee!

  3. So interesting, Saralee! And I can relate to this. For Perfect Timing I went with a real town but gave it a fictitious name, in part because I wasn't from there! I agree, readers like it when you zone in on their territory, though they seem to take exception if you're not born and bred. Great post!

  4. I love when readers tell me I described so accurately a place I hardly know at all.