One piece of advice that especially hit home was Appel’s suggestion that we set our fictional stories in places we know very well, places where we have actually lived. With a guilty twinge, I thought about a novel that I drafted a few years back that I set on the other side of the country in a city in Massachusetts that I had visited for a few days. Great place. I took a lot of pictures and notes and always planned to go back and do more research, but can I ever capture the heart of a city where I have only spent a few days? I can gather lots of facts on the Internet, but can I really feel the place in my bones? I doubt it. Locals will know I’m faking it.
The novel I’m just finishing is set right here on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here for 17 years. I know the history, the people, the climate. I know what used to be where Walgreen’s just opened. I know the mayor, I swap critiques with a county commissioner, I have taught at the community college, had surgery at the local hospital, I know what kinds of birds, plants and wild animals live here, and I can name most of the businesses up and down Highway 101. I’m lucky that I live in a place where the natural setting offers plenty of opportunities for drama. I could write stories about the Oregon coast forever.
I come from San Jose, California, which has grown from a quiet farm community into a huge metropolis. You have to hunt for unpaved ground. Traffic, overcrowding and high prices are constant factors in everyday life. It’s a completely different scene, but I know that one well, too. My family lives there, and I visit often. I also know the road from here to San Jose ridiculously well. I’ve got so many places to set my stories.
How about you? Where do you live? What stories can you tell? Can you look at your hometown with the eyes of a visitor seeing it for the first time? Maybe they’re armed with a guidebook that points out the special attractions, but you know more about it than the guidebook. You know where the locals hang out. You know the history, the secrets, and the dangers. You know the language. One of my problems with the Massachusetts story was capturing that distinct New England way of speaking. But I don’t have to stretch to write dialogue from the West Coast. That’s how I speak.
Everywhere can be a setting for a story. For a writer, the whole world teems with stories. With enough research, you can set your story anywhere, but know that if you want to make it real, the best place to start is the place you call home. It may also help your career to become identified with a particular place. Give it a try. Write a story that happens where you live.
Next week: How to use where you live for your nonfiction.
I’ve still got a few copies of Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market available for $10, including shipping. Email me at email@example.com if you want to buy an autographed copy.
Now go write.
In the novel I’m writing, my character lived in Missoula, Montana before and now she’s going back to take care of some things. I personally had never been to Missoula, hadn’t been to Montana at all since 1974. I did what I could on the Internet. I studied all the photos and information I could Google. I downloaded maps and picked out streets where she might live and work. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what it was like, but I was wrong. When the Fishtrap writing workshop I attended in early July took me close to Oregon’s eastern border, just a jump over Idaho to Montana, I decided to go see Missoula for myself. I’m so glad I did.
Instead of getting a vague picture from what I could find on the Internet, I actually went to the place where she worked, saw the house where she lived, and knelt in the church where she worshipped. I stayed in a motel where she might have stayed, ate at a restaurant where she probably ate. I shopped at the Book Exchange, where she might have bought books. I took pictures and lots of notes, not only in Missoula but on the way there and back.
I could have gotten by with just my online research. I had the general idea. I had the names of things. But I didn’t have the feeling of being there first thing in the morning and the middle of the night or of walking downtown at lunchtime, and there were things I didn’t know. For example, as I entered Missoula, the road was lined with gambling casinos. I didn’t expect that. The hills surrounding Missoula looked huge in the pictures, but they are not the Rocky Mountains; they’re rolling hills like those in my hometown of San Jose. And the drive is so much different from what I thought it would be. In fact I took one way there and a different way back, realizing the first route would be impassible in winter–and she’s going there in December. It would have been more realistic if I went to Missoula in winter, but I had the opportunity now. Besides, my character might be used to driving in snow, but I’m not.
Sometimes I think you just have to go there. The Internet is good, imagination is great, but if you’re using a real place in your fiction, you need to walk the streets and feel what it’s like. I would not have realized Montanans have a little drawl, wear their hair differently, have no sales tax, really get into cowboy art, dress in bright colors instead of Oregon’s grays and blacks, and that the men get confused when a woman opens her own door. To see the cubicle my character might have worked in and the people she might have worked with will make my book so much more real.
My previously published novel, Azorean Dreams, took place mostly in San Jose, California, where I lived and worked for most of my life. I made up the place where my hero lived but planted it in a setting that was so real my readers often go looking for Simao’s house and office, and even I have a hard time believing they’re not really there. After all, you can visit the cemetery, the church, the bakery, the Portuguese community center, and the bridge where Chelsea met the homeless people. Our settings need to be that real and that detailed.
And here’s a 21st century bonus: When my new novel is published, I can post stories in my blog or on Facebook about my character’s journey, using the pictures and experiences I gathered during my research.
So go there. It’s fun! It’s deductible, too.