How To Build A Fictional City

The Dogs of Beaumont Heights

A lot of people tell me Monticello in Holland Bay and The Dogs of Beaumont Heights feels real. Little details like the odd way the Shoreway hovers over Lake Avenue, the names and condition of various neighborhoods, and even the history in places of the city conspire to make it seem like I took a few weekends there. Of course, any geologist will tell you Monticello’s existence is impossible. A former industrial giant straddling two high bluffs, the actual area is all prairie and farmland. The real suburbs of Milan and Norwalk, which get mentions, are indeed old railroad towns with heavy industry present, but Monticello resembles any number of Rust Belt cities that peaked decades ago. Will they ever come back?

In Ohio, Cleveland takes stabs at it with varying degrees of success. Cincinnati, after a decline that engulfed Ohio, Michigan, and Western Pennsylvania, has remained pretty stable in my time here. But Columbus absolutely exploded. A real Monticello would resemble the state capital more than either of the two major cities at each end of I-71’s Ohio route.

So, how did I make it real?

I wrote a 36-page history of the place. I don’t recommend that, but I found the idea intriguing. I needed a geography, and a hundred square miles of prairie wasn’t going to cut it. I like Columbus. Were I twenty years younger, I’d move there to seek my fortune, but it’s a bit new and kind of sterile, a city trying to find its identity. The other two C’s in Ohio, along with Toledo, have history. They were immigrant melting pots: British settlers, Scots-Irish out of Kentucky or Pennsylvania, Germans – both Anabaptist and Catholic, Eastern Europeans, escaped slaves, Italians. In more recent years, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have made their presence felt. Cleveland loves its kielbasa. Cincinnati wants goetta for breakfast. (Side note: I’ve only had scrapple once, and not in Baltimore, but when McNulty on The Wire demanded it, I completely got the appeal: That’s an East Coast answer to Ohio and Indiana’s goetta. The rest of you peasants just wouldn’t get it.)

So, why a history? I grew tired of thinly disguised cities that were Not Chicago or Not New York or Not Los Angeles. Also, the names of fictional cities annoyed me. In soap operas, General Hospital takes places in Port Charles while The Bold and the Beautiful calls Genoa City home. Batman lives in Gotham City, basically the Bronx, Queens, and the seedier parts of Brooklyn. Somewhere in the DC Universe is Central City, which it totally not Chicago. See a pattern? Port something? Something City? It’s like the name is a poorly thought-out detail slapped on at the end. And Monticello started out that way only for one crime writer to suggest that the name did nothing for readers except possibly to inspire them to close the book.

So, I wrote a history. And before line one of Holland Bay landed on the page, I knew who founded the city, who the fat cats of old were, what events shaped it. Living literally in walking distance of reality, it anchors it rather. Unless you live in places like Sandusky or Vermillion along Lake Erie. Even then, I made adjustments. Sandusky is where you jump on a boat for the islands. Only now, there’s two more of them. Vermillion is still the beachfront town. In Beaumont, Branson and Taggart muse how the feared judge Mankiewicz is skirting residency requirements by having a house only accessible via (the very real) Lorain County, but lying in the limits of both Vermillion and Musgrave County. In real life, Erie, which roughly forms the borders of Monticello in the Celloverse, also contains parts of Vermillion.

But how about the details? That’s where the history comes in. Holland Island was settled originally by Dutch settlers who conned a few Shawnee into protecting it (in the heart of Wyandot territory) as they squatted on the island. Since the island was waterlogged before the 20th century, the squatting settlement failed, but the Shawnee settlement remained until the region became Monticello. Musgrave County and the Musgrave River get their name from a British colonel in the area who defected after the Redcoats failed to defend his family from hostile indigenous groups. Unlike the silly folk from New York who started Holland Island, he built a village after the Revolution he dubbed Harbourtown.

Many of the names of families are in this history. The Wolcotts and the Johnsons sprang from industrialists in the pre-Civil War Era who fought for control over the city’s railyards. Vodrey Heights, the large, white collar east side borough, gets its name from a Connecticut war hero named Vodrey. (In reality, it’s named from a gentleman named William Vodrey, who, as a law student, made the catastrophic error of telling me I could write. Now he’s a common pleas judge in Cleveland. So, you can survive just about anything.) Custis is named for a relative of George Washington who came to the city fed up with how he saw former slaves being treated in his native Virginia. So, he gets a university, a hospital, and parts of Holland Island named for him. The Reeds trace their lineage back a Darius Reed, a black bootlegger from Prohibition days whom I actually modeled after Joseph Kennedy, another person who made a fortune in bootlegging.

Then I added recent events: A near miss around the time of 9/11 targeting the nearby (and real) nuclear plant at Port Clinton. A mayor in the seventies charged with corruption who barricaded himself in his office. A freighter collision that blocked the city’s river for a week. Implied (but not stated for trademark reasons) flirtations with landing the Cavaliers and taking on the old Cleveland Barons hockey team. Things like that shape a city from year to year, so locals probably don’t think about them. Visitors, on the other hand, will think, “Why’s the local IPA called Barricade? And who’s the hippie in a shirt and tie on the label?”

Ultimately, I have to write about this city as though it is real. But I have to do it in such a way as to not think about it. A reader should be able to picture it without effort.

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