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.