Why Readers Hate the Generic City
I should add that there is nothing wrong with making up a city as contemporary mystery writer Sue Grafton (among others) has done with "Santa Theresa," which she bases on Santa Barbara, California. But even the made-up city should have sharp, vivid details that distinguish it from the Generic City and give it a realistic and memorable flavor.
We readers can recognize the Generic City (such as it is) by the first page – usually because the viewpoint character will unrealistically think of his home as “the city” or “the town” instead of by name. How many of us in real life ever get out of bed and think, “Better hurry or I’ll get caught up in rush hour traffic in the city”? Or “Goodness sakes, I’ve been living in the town for five years now and I can’t wait to get out of here”? Or “Looks like my city might be going to the Super Bowl this year”? Even if we are living in a city so big and amazing that it might really feel like the center of the world, such as New York City, we will tend to think in specifics such as, “I’m stuck here in Brooklyn but I need to get to Manhattan in the next twenty minutes.”
I have encountered the Generic City in gay romance, fan-fiction, and in self-published fiction of all types, including mysteries, male-female romance, and young adult fiction. Since the Generic City is such an irritatingly vague place, it is hard to describe. But it seems to be a large to medium-sized North American city, probably land-locked and with a typical four-season climate. Think anywhere in southern Canada or the Midwestern USA -- but not French Canada or Mexico because that would require WAY too much work to get the cultural details down. By contrast, the Generic City is something a writer could adapt from spending about ten minutes watching most television sit-coms. In terms of culture and demographics, the Generic City is blandly white. Think Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no real details about the Protestantism. In terms of industry, the Generic City has some tenuous connection with something like manufacturing or high-tech business, which could be anywhere. Certainly, the economy of the Generic City won’t center on anything specific to certain regions such as tourism or shipping.
Writers tend to short-change the readers with the Generic City because there is huge pressure nowadays to publish as fast and often as possible especially now that e-publishing has made it possible. When a writer is trying to meet a killer publishing schedule, he or she may cut corners. Spending time on researching and describing the setting is often the first thing to be sacrificed. Or the writers who are unfamiliar with the actual cities they would like to use for settings might feel too intimidated to use research to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. They fear that they will make mistakes no matter what, which will destroy their credibility with the natives. However, I think it is even worse to serve up the same old Generic City that we readers see over and over again.
We readers hate the Generic City because we feel ripped off. We paid the cover price for the book and we deserve a specific setting along with realistic characters, good writing, and a strong plot. Each of us readers has a hometown and we know how unique and interesting our home is even if we don’t happen to live in an incredibly picturesque place like, say, New Orleans. No matter where it is located, a real setting with vibrant, specific details is like another character in the book. It adds a tremendous amount to the reading experience. Why did the Nordic crime thriller genre become so popular worldwide after Stieg Larsson’s books got translated from the Swedish? Not for the plots, but for the setting.
Nowadays with the rise of the internet and tools such as Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Images, and various city forums, it is easier than ever before to find out all the details a writer could ever need to create a vivid setting.
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