Advice for writing a book set in New York City

My RSW post is here.

Note: Though this post specifically is about NYC, the gist of most of these guidelines could easily be applied to any city which is a popular story setting (e.g., London, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Shanghai, Berlin).

I love writing books set partially or primarily in New York City. It’s so fun to write about the New York of yore, when more normal people could actually afford to live there, before the city was as we know it today. But there are some things to keep in mind if you’re using this popular city as the setting for your own writing, either historical or contemporary.

1. New York City is composed of five boroughs, in spite of how Manhattan seems to be the most-represented in fiction, and Brooklyn occasionally depicted. Why not be original and set your story in Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island? Or you could always have your Manhattan characters eventually move to one of the other boroughs for the chance to live in a real house and have a yard.

2. Get a map of neighbourhoods and see how they intertwine and border one another, which are downtown, uptown, and midtown, how they’ve changed over time. For example, the so-called East Village was just the northern portion of the Lower East Side till the mid-Sixties, when the gentrified residents got uppity ideas and decided to secede in order to distance themselves from the neighbourhood’s historic association with poverty.

3. Learn how demographics have changed over time. For example, The Bowery wasn’t skid-row at all in the antebellum era, and Harlem wasn’t always a majority Black neighbourhood. Hamilton Heights has a lot of Hispanics nowadays, but for much of the 20th century, it was heavily Russian.

4. Please don’t phonetically render accents! Just introduce your character by saying s/he has a strong Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, or Staten Island accent.

5. Don’t overdo it with the regionalisms. My native-born New Yorkers certainly say “yous” and “yous guys,” but not on every single page. You never want to overuse dialect and regionalisms to the point where they become intrusive, comical, distracting, cliché.

6. If your characters are recent transplants, or from a family which hasn’t been in the city long, odds are they won’t have an accent. From what I hear, it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for today’s New Yorkers to have any sort of accent (with the notable exception of the isolated Staten Island). Also, different groups of people have different variations in the accent. For example, Brooklyn accents are different in the Jewish, Italian, and Hispanic communities.

7. If you live in the city, or have lived there, don’t gut-load your book with all your intricate, first-hand knowledge of subway schedules, streets, businesses, local history, etc. That’s mental masturbation, not good world-building. Sprinkle in the local flavour; don’t have people constantly going to Central Park and various museums, riding the subway, going shopping at the famous stores of Midtown, or hanging out at the main library.

8. Know about important historic events that occurred during your timeline, such as the Great Northeast Blackout of November 1965, the terrifying polio epidemic of 1916, and the rubella epidemic which reached the city in late 1963 and continued through 1965.

9. Avoid clichés! You know the sort—Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side; artists and Bohemians in Greenwich Village; wealthy élites uptown; starry-eyed youth hoping to become famous singers, Broadway actors, writers, musicians, or artists; tough-talking Irish or Italians. It’s not that there’s no truth in these clichés, just that it’s not very original.

10. It’s hard to believe, but some normal people still do live in the city, not just haves and have-nots. Maybe their family’s been in the city for generations, and so they just inherited a brownstone or had bought an apartment when prices were relatively affordable. Maybe someone married into a New York family and was able to live in the city that way. And some places are relatively affordable by city standards (esp. outside of Manhattan).

11. One of the worst aspects of TV shows set in the city is having characters with less than stellar jobs able to afford nice apartments and neighbourhoods. Give your characters jobs that make living in a place like the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village realistic, and don’t show them hanging out at the coffee shop and one another’s apartments far more than they’re shown working (coughfriendscough).

12. Learn about public transportation and the parking situation. There’s a reason most residents don’t own cars. Also, you don’t have to specify the exact subway or bus schedule and locations. It’s also not hard to look up what taxi and subway rates were in decades past, if you want to specify fare.

13. There are a lot of neighbourhoods beyond the best-known. If you’re using the popular Manhattan, why not try a lesser-represented place like the Meatpacking District, Two Bridges, Yorkville, Hudson Heights, or Carnegie Hill?

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4 comments on “Advice for writing a book set in New York City

  1. Yeah, don’t over-do accents. Those are really hard to read.
    New York has changed so much over the years. Every era was different.

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  2. Great tips! That’s the case for any city, for sure. I’m so tired of bad Nashville accents! They never seem to get it right on TV, I know. I just read Jen Malone’s At Your Service (out in August) and she did an amazing job. She didn’t just set her story in NYC–the kids in it seem to hit all the hot spots, including the Apple Store! She described it all in detail, and she lives in Boston.

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  3. Chrys Fey says:

    Awesome tips. Thanks for this. If I ever have to write a story set in NYC, I’ll be coming back to this post for help. 🙂

    Like

  4. Interesting, Carrie-Anne. A lot of things I’d never thought of. You have such a great way with the details. Thanks. 🙂

    Like

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