A Guide to Writing About New York

So you want to write a novel or a story about New York City, but you’ve never been there. You have no idea where to begin and you want to get it right.

I was born, raised, still live and will probably die in New York, so let me tell you a few things.

The 5 boroughs of New York City. From nyctourist.com

Your only knowledge of New York is through movies or TV. Movies and TV shows tend to focus on the island of Manhattan. There is more to New York than Manhattan. I know, I know, Manhattan has most of the tourist attractions, but there are four other boroughs around Manhattan–and most likely, your protagonist would live in one of those places. Why? Because Manhattan is ridiculously expensive. So take a look at the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

Speaking of, Brooklyn and Queens used to be separate cities and villages from Manhattan. So there are neighborhoods in each of those boroughs that still go by their old names. In Manhattan, the addresses are New York, NY. Brooklyn, NY. The Bronx, NY. Staten Island, NY. In Queens, the addresses end in the town: Long Island City, NY. Astoria, NY.

The subway confuses you. Here’s a secret: it confuses us, too. The New York City subway system is massive. The fare is currently $2.50 and you get on buses and the subway by swiping a Metrocard, which one buys at a vending machine in subway stations. The subway is open 24 hours, but service slows down considerably after 10 pm and lines change course or go express or go local after that time. Also, the MTA has a separate website called The Weekender just to keep track of service changes on the weekends.

Contrary to popular belief, we’re not completely unfriendly. If your protagonist-from-not-New-York encounters his first New Yorker, please try not to make said New Yorker cliched by making him a total asshole. Of course, we have a larger proportion of jerks than other places, but in general, New Yorkers are brusque, cut-to-the-chase types. And no, we don’t always wear black. And no, we don’t really all sound like that.

Street smarts. I think you usually gain them in New York by osmosis. Basic city things, like don’t walk around by yourself in sketchy areas late at night. Don’t flash your wallet/cell/ipod/iPad. Don’t make eye contact. Keep a close eye on your belongings.

Ummm…that’s all I can think of right now. Any of my fellow New Yorkers want to chime in? Anything you wish to impart to writers who want to write about NYC? Does anyone have any questions pertaining to New York? And what kind of misconceptions do people have about where you live, wherever it is? 

10 thoughts on “A Guide to Writing About New York

  1. Love it! (Even though I live in the 'burbs.) I second everything you said about the other boroughs. I'll also add that most people (if they're smart) do not drive cars in Manhattan. And if you are driving your car there, don't expect it to be an easy ride.Oh, and you're also most likely not going to be beaten, mugged, and raped on every street corner.


  2. That's right! Don't drive in Manhattan! And yeah, on a more serious note, we are a pretty safe city these days. Anything else you want a writer considering setting their story here to know?


  3. In my opinion, the one thing most people get wrong about New York is that they think Manhattan is the city and the boroughs are the suburbs. Wrong. All five boroughs are in the City of New York. We call our transit the subway. When I went to college in Boston, I learned that they call theirs \”the T.\” And I came home and referred to the subway as the T once and got yelled at by my friends.


  4. Is there always stuff going on at Times Square, or is it only festive and lit up for New Year's Eve?Whenever I read stories with settings in NY, Times Square is usually the backdrop for serial killings and other predators.This is a great post! Thanks for sharing your neighborhood with us.


  5. Times Square is crazy all year round. From what I understand, it used to be a sort of sketchy area with sex shops and prostitution. I wonder if that's where the serial killing stories you've read about stem from. Or maybe that it's such a famous place. Or the only place those authors knew? ;)But these days, it's generally safe, but busy. People everywhere. People soliciting tours and comedy shows everywhere. Huge stores. Lost tourists. Jacked up prices. It looks like daytime when it's dark because of all the lights.


  6. I get really nervous writing in settings I haven't visited myself, for a few reasons you mentioned above – all those little tidbits that people don't know that make the setting feel real. When I read your heading \”A Guide to Writing About New York\” I was all excited thinking to myself, I wonder where in New York, maybe it's somewhere upstate! Great post 🙂


  7. Well, I'm writing about Bristol, England in my WIP. I've never been to England. I'm helped a little bit in that I'm writing about Bristol in 1800 though. Still want to get as much right as I can :)Whoops, I should've put New York City in the title! Where upstate are you from?


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