While I prefer fictional story settings, To the Left of Death made that tricky, given that the main character spends some time in New York City. It is a fictionalized New York City, in the sense that the places the characters visit are (mostly) not real. However, I like my fictionalized cities to be grounded in reality, so I do look for inspiration in the real world.
Note: There are some minor spoilers about To the Left of Death below, particular in the section about New York. If you want to read the book first, pick up a copy here.
The main setting in To the Left of Death is an unnamed suburb that is about an hour from Philadelphia and two to three hours from New York City. Though I’ve been to Philadelphia and New York City, I had to do a little internet sleuthing to see what kind of suburbs exist in that area.
I think my fictional suburbs would exist somewhere in the area of Upper Providence Township, Pennsylvania. Yet, the point of these suburbs is that they are like many suburbs across the United States. Cookie cutter homes in pleasant developments. Shopping plazas with big box stores, casual dining, kid activities, etc.
Set within the suburbs, Cedar Lake groups shops and restaurants around a narrow lake. It’s home to The Art House, a studio and art shop that supports community artists. This fictional community is loosely based on Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Virginia.
Over 20 years ago, I lived within walking distance of Lake Anne. I browsed its used book store, sipped coffee while walking around the lake, and even had went to one of its restaurants on my first date with my husband, Peter. There is an art gallery at Lake Anne, but any similarities to The Art House–aside from its location near the lake–are unintentional.
New York City
New York City is the most well-known story setting in To the Left of Death. To avoid possible spoilers, I won’t say too much about the destinations in this part of the book. Basically, the characters visit three areas: the East Village, Midtown, and the Upper East Side.
To ground this trip in reality, I planned transit times with MTA subway maps and checked out neighborhoods where it would make sense for the various settings to exist. Strangely, I kept finding similar real-life locations near my planned fictional ones. Or maybe that’s not so strange, since New York has everything!
The East Village
The unnamed art school is in the East Village, near NYU and The Cooper Union, which is Peter’s alma mater. While skimming Google Maps to refresh my memory, I noticed the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture on 8th Street, near Washington Square Park. That wasn’t an inspiration for the fictional art school in my book, but it was cool to come across it.
The East Village bar in the book is very loosely based on McSorley’s, only because I know it from visiting The Cooper Union with Peter. And hearing his college stories.
I’d written that Remy’s art shop was a twenty-minute train ride from the art school. That could put it in Midtown, somewhere around East 57th Street. That happens to be close to Brooklyn Diner USA, which inspired me to set their lunch in a nostalgic diner.
The Upper East Side
Finally, the setting for the walk from the hotel was found on Google Maps. I was looking for a school in a nice neighborhood that would be out-of-the-way but not too far from the rest of the trip, and I stumbled onto the perfect Upper East Side area. On East 91st Street, I found a middle school that’s next to an upscale apartment building and only a short walk from a hotel.
To the Left of Death is a work of fiction, but I did enjoy researching New York City and using its real-world geography to plan out the timing of that side trip. I also loved creating The Art House. Its membership with 24-hour access is my own invention. Mainly because it seems like a cool way to connect local artists. I would join if I could!