You can travel our whole world, and infinite others, through books. Better still, a good novel supplies an erudite tour guide and a caravan of colorful characters to accompany you along the way.
Apply this theory to your hometown, and you can delve even deeper. Peel back the layers of what could or what absolutely shouldn’t happen behind the closed doors of your neighbors, and you’ll see, hear, and smell your neighborhood anew.
American literature is big. It’s not easy to find your way around. So, Crossword-Solver used Goodreads data to build a new interactive tool for the armchair traveler: enter your zip code, and we’ll reveal the book set closest to you. Further down, we use the stats to discover the literary nature of each state and the towns where you’re most likely to find yourself in a book.
Of course, you could use this tool to plan your road trip reading. Enter the zip codes from your various stopping points and see what goes on, fictionally, around your motel. But why leave your armchair when it’s all in a book?
Which towns lend themselves best to literary representation? The map below shows the town from every state that you’re most likely to stumble upon in a novel. You might have guessed that NewYork City is the most common U.S. setting for fiction. We found 2,609 books set in New York–if you read one a month, it’ll take you 217½ years to get through all of them.
But what about the little towns? The Rockingham County, New Hampshire town of Portsmouth has hosted only six fictional novels. For example, Betsy Cornwell’s YA fantasy Tides exploits Portsmouth’s seaport setting with a tale of mermaids and selkies, putting an unlikely twist on the hero’s marine biology internship.
New York is the state that provides the setting for the highest number of novels. We found 4,887 books set in New York locations as diverse as Albany, Lake Placid, and Montauk. Despite the latter’s picturesque settings, it is rumors of Stranger Things-style government experiments on the peninsula that make Montauk a must-visit for authors.
More than half of New York state’s novels are set in NYC. When you remove every state’s most commonly fictionalized city, however, California jumps to the top – despite losing 984 titles when you exclude LA from the results. Illinois drops from #5 to #28 when you remove every state’s top location. We found its most populous and most-written-about city, Chicago, in the pages of 953 books, including Stephen King’s It and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Noticed that it’s a dark and stormy night? Someone asking you to call them Ishmael? Chances are you’re in one of these locations. There are nearly nine thousand novels set in America’s 10 most common book locations alone
New York is on top, with Goodreads users tagging the Big Apple for 2,609 books. That’s one more than Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans put together.
Next, we figured out what percentage of each setting’s books fit each genre. And then, for each genre, we ranked the top ten locations with the highest percentage.
Salem, famous for its real-life witch trials, is a common setting for fantasy novels. And with fantasy lending itself to ongoing series such Janet Evanovich’s Lizzy & Diesel and Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, the Massachusetts town has built up quite a fantasy canon.
You need to dig a bit deeper to find novels about pre-Columbian life on the continent. Still, the short and rich history of the U.S. and its young towns tells its own story – from the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown to the bustling urban development of Brooklyn.
As the site of America’s entry into WWII, Pearl Harbor represents a dramatic turning point in U.S. history, exemplified through the emotional and actual explosions of James Jones’s From Here To Eternity.
Here’s a puzzle for you: why do so many mysteries occur in certain towns and locations? Well, some towns are breeding grounds for mystery writers – such as Ann Arbor, where the university’s famous writing program occupies a campus so idyllic that authors feel compelled to add a little blood and intrigue.
Other places get a criminal name for themselves, thanks to one or two serial crime writers. Nearly every work of fiction set in the number one mystery town Bisbee, Arizona, is part of J.A. Jance’s series of novels about Sheriff Joanna Brady.
Romance is an aspirational genre, and the locations with the greatest density of fictional romances tend to be places of natural beauty.
But a gritty setting offers its own dramatic appeal: “In the little city of Flint, MI,” reads the blurb to ‘toxic romance’ Moth to a Flame, “the good die young and the people left standing are the grimiest of characters.”
You could argue for light-years about whether sci-fi has become ‘mainstream’ or remains a niche genre. But our stats show that no more than one-third of the novels set in any U.S. location are of the sci-fi persuasion.
Like the murder mystery, the sci-fi genre gains a little extra punch from setting unusual happenings in very ordinary or idyllic places. But some American locations carry their own sci-fi baggage, such as Sedona, Arizona – where the surrounding alien desert landscape makes an eerie backdrop for parts of Anna Carey’s Eve series.
“Thrillers are characterized by fast pacing, frequent action, and resourceful heroes who must thwart the plans of more-powerful and better-equipped villains,” explains Goodreads. While it overlaps with the mystery genre, the thriller hero tends to be out to prevent a crime or catastrophe, rather than solve a crime in retrospect.
Thrillers tend to take up very little of any location’s literary imagination, with the political intrigues of Washington D.C. on top with just 17.83%. Classic hardboiled crime destinations such as Miami, LA, and NYC exemplify the generally gritty, urban settings where our unshaven heroes and heroines race against the clock to save the dame/city/violin.
Look around you: what stories do you see? And which ones are waiting to be told? A novel’s setting is more than a pretty backdrop – it offers texture, symbolism, and history to the story being told. Even if that setting is just your armchair and a blazing fireplace.
We started by extracting all available data from Goodreads on books set in the U.S., according to the location tags. We used SerpAPI to pull domains that contained a U.S. state’s name within their URL.
For each location, we then identified the book with the most ratings for six key genres (Mystery, Thriller, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical, and Romance). We then used https://simplemaps.com/data/us-cities and https://nominatim.org/ to retrieve coordinates for all locations in the dataset and locations that users can input into the tool (ZIP codes and U.S. Locations). The tool then uses these coordinates to find the closest book for each genre.
For the state maps, we grouped locations into their respective states and calculated the total locations tags for each. We also isolated the location within each state with the most location tags.
For the genre rankings, we identified the locations with the highest % share of books of that genre. We set a minimum threshold of 20 books for a location to be included.
Genres were defined by identifying the genre with the most tags by users for each book on Goodreads.
The data was collected in February 2022.