March 18, 2013

Monday Pep Rally: Writing Home

Monday Pep Rally is a weekly feature where the Misfits post a question for you, the reader, to answer. You can answer on your own blog and link in the comments, or just answer here!

I never set books in the same place twice. I usually don't set them in real places at all. I've set books in a fictional town in New Hampshire, a fictional town in South Carolina, a fictional town in... well, I didn't say in that one, but in my head it's somewhere in the Midwest. But sometimes, mixed in with the fiction, you've got to include real places, and when you do, you've got to get 'em right!

I live in New York City, and reading a book that's set here but feels as if it's written by someone who's never even been drives me crazy. When you have someone who's not incredibly wealthy living on her own in a decent neighborhood, you're getting it wrong. When you have someone talk in full addresses or street names instead of intersections like "42nd and Lex," you're getting it wrong. If your character has ever said "Avenue of the Americas," you're getting it wrong. If your character commutes via cab, you're getting it wrong. So help me God, I loved the show Gossip Girl, but if your characters are going from above 14th Street to Brooklyn with even a tenth of that frequency (commuters excluded), you are getting it wrong. 
The best NYC books, to me, are the ones that make me feel at home. The ones that know that doormen are likely important characters in a middle-class city kid's life. The ones that say "the city" instead of overusing the word "Manhattan." The ones where people take the subway, because of course they take the subway. The ones that use Central Park like the backyard the kids don't have. Those are the ones that remind me of high school, and those are the ones that, for me, get it right.

Right now, I'm working on a manuscript that spans the fictional West Kansas town I've created and the very real East Kansas town of Lawrence, KS. Unfortunately, I've never been to Kansas - either side. So I take guesses and do research and look at Google Earth and Google Maps and college websites and sites about the racial makeup of the area and all that, and I do my best. But, no amount of research compares to the little details I got from talking to my (kind and patient) Kansan friend Sarah, who taught me that if I really want to show Kansas, I'll make sure everyone hates Mizzou.

Try getting that gem from Google Maps.

And so, dear readers, I ask you:

What would a writer need to know to get your hometown right? And what books have gotten yours - or a town like yours - spot-on?


Carla Luna Cullen said...

I haven't read many books set in the small town in Wisconsin where I live now, but I spent 11 years in Los Angeles, and I know the area really well. I remember reading a romance novel where the writer had made up exits for the 10 Freeway. That annoyed me because Angelenos really know their exits! They also know Freeway names and nicknames. I thought Jennifer Bosworth's STRUCK did a great job with a post-earthquake L.A. setting.

Anonymous said...

No one sets books in my town, but they should. I grew up in the Mushroom Capitol of the World (actual mushrooms, not the drugs). Kennett Square, PA, a small town outside of Philadelphia. My public high school was 47% Hispanic, the kids of migrant workers, and there was a huge racial divide. My junior and senior years there was an uptick in gang violence. There's a Mushroom Festival every September and they close the entire town for it. People travel across the country for it. The Food Network broadcasts from it. My ittybitty township of a 14,000 people or something like that suddenly has 80,000 people in a 4 square block area.
My town's BEGGING for a West Side Story retelling with an agricultural bent. ;)

Nicole River said...

What a great question! I've been wanting to write a story set in my hometown (or wishing someone else would) for a while. What would you need to get Montreal right? The diverse neighborhoods, English/French, rich/poor, various communities... And of course the bilingualism. This is the only place where homeless people ask for change in two languages :) Montreal (and all of Quebec) has its own unique character and culture unlike anywhere else in North America and you'd absolutely have to show it in a story! It's the ultimate city-as-character.

Kat Ellis said...

Because I tend to 'write American' (I write stories usually set in the US, usually with American MCs, usually in American English), this is something I have to think about A LOT.

You've probably seen me tweet weird and random questions like "If a town has one cop, what's the likely population? Would they be a sheriff?" and so on. Things a native probably knows without even having to think about it. So on the rare occasions (OK, only ONE occasion) I've set a story in my home town, I had to give serious thought to those same questions, but from a non-UK reader's perspective. What does the air smell like here? Native plant life? Animals you'd encounter 'in the wild' (BTW, a sheep is the scariest thing you'll encounter here.) What are the local landmarks?

Of course it's different setting a story in a whole other country than just another state, but I think it's worth including those little details which someone outside the US won't know as well. :)

Blair Thornburgh said...

I worry that I have the OPPOSITE problem--that the places in my story are so familiar to me as to be alienating for the reader. I set my novel in an invented suburb of my hometown of Philadelphia, but a lot of the places are just transplanted from their real-world locations. I do my best to bring the reader up to speed to all the important haunts, but it's tricky to do that without some boring THIS IS WHERE THE TEENAGERS HANG OUT info dump.

Meagan said...

Sarah Ockler did western New York so spot on with Bitterwsweet that it makes me homesick just thinking about it. She set it in the fictional town of Watonka, which if you're familiar with the region, even SOUNDS like a little suburb of Buffalo. It's the smell of the cheerios over the Skyway, the people constantly brimming with excitement over the Sabres. It's wonderful and dreary and still a little hopeful. There's a whole attitude in decrepit Rust Belt cities that can't be reproduced without actually being there and knowing it.

(and it's also the automatic eye rolling whenever someone goes "OMG YOU'RE FROM NEW YORK!?!?")

I started the first book in The Lying Game, and I thought it captured the feel of Tucson really well (and unfortunate that the show is set in Phoenix instead), and Katie Kacvinsky's FIRST COMES LOVE actually made me not hate being here for a few hours while reading it.

It's so hard to capture a *feeling* that comes with a place.

Rachel said...

So I'm from New Jersey and often I feel like writers don't capture us well. There's either the beach or the towns closest to the City. I just read a great indie/self pubbed book set in the woods of NJ that I thought captured it perfectly! :) I set my books in "any where" because I never really experienced my home town. True fact. I went to private schools out side of my hometown (usually 45-50 min away) so I never got the hometown feel. I am dying to set a book in Australia where I studied abroad for 6 months bc I think I could get that down to a pat :) GREAT question!

Princess Sara said...

If anybody calls a bubbler anything but a bubbler, that novel is not set in my hometown. Not that I've ever seen a novel set in my hometown...

Saybe Scott said...

Great post, Dahlia. I started to write out a comment here but it was getting long so I decided to post it to my own blog instead. :) This is the first paragraph of what I said:

I'd bet this is something that non-American's think about a lot more than American writers. :) The English-language publishing industry (especially for YA) is unsurprisingly fairly US-centric, since that's where the biggest publishers are headquartered, and also where the greatest population of writers and readers are. I’ve gotten pretty used to almost never seeing Canadian settings in the YA books I read, but as a Canadian it does pose a challenge to writing.

Carolyn Charron said...

Can't believe no-one mentioned Toronto yet! ;) Yes, many Torontonians think we are the centre of the universe... we ARE the largest city in Canada after all and the 4th largest in North America.

Our city name is always pronounced "Trana" never "To-ron-to"; most of us "ride the rocket" aka the subway system; complaining about traffic and the weather is a daily topic of conversation; and none of us live in an Igloo like so many 'mercans think we do.

Oh yes, we also play host to a number of pathetic sports teams; the Blue Jays, the Argonauts, the Raptors and the Maple Leafs. (How embarrassing that I don't even remember exactly which sport is which!)

And last, but certainly not least, we claim many "American" stars as our own, Ontario-born celebrities: Ryan Gosling, Jim Carrey, Martin Short, John Candy, Justin Bieber, Neve Campbell, Sandra Oh, Wayne Gretzky, James Cameron, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Myers, Sarah Polley, A.J. Cook to name just a few.

But we Torontonians try to keep a low profile, we're not braggarts you know! As a global city, we have a reputation to uphold. ;)

Sarah Guillory said...

Great post! As a southerner, I hate reading books set in the South by people who have obviously never lived here. There are things we say, down to certain prepositions, that just don't sound right when someone else attempts it. I hate having the show the accent by dropping gs, because we don't all do that, and Southern is not just an accent, but a cadence, a way of speaking. I've put several books down for voice alone when they make those kinds of mistakes. People in Arkansas do wear shoes, and not everyone in Louisiana talks like swamp people. :)

Gina said...

So funny.

I live in - and grew up in - Phoenix. Recently, there was an episode of Parenthood where a minor character was from Arizona and she said she was from "just outside of Tempe."

1. She pronounced Tempe wrong.
2. There is no "just outside of Tempe." Tempe is, in and of itself, a suburb surrounded by other suburbs. "just outside of Tempe" would be Phoenix, or Scottsdale, or Mesa. All three cities that are bigger and more famous than Tempe.
3. Everyone ALWAYS says they're from Phoenix. When pressed, you'll answer "East Valley" or maybe "Scottsdale" or "West Valley." Nobody ever answers a specific little city/suburb. Except Scottsdale, because it's where the rich people go.
4. We ALL call it "the valley." No movie or book has ever done that.
5. Also? Like 50% of people living in the valley are Hispanic. But that never gets reflected, either.

Dannie Morin said...

Greetings from Charlotte, North Carolina (or North Cakalacky if you find yourself with a local.) I'm not from here (I'm a "Damn Yankee") but I've been toiling here for seven years now. It never fails to amaze me how complete strangers will come up to you in the mall and not only make eye contact, but ask you for fashion advice. How "cornhole" (aka a beanbag toss) is a respectable, competitive activity, and how completely unacceptable it is to honk your horn, no matter how egregious the driving. A parking garage is called a "deck" and the thing you put your groceries in at the store is called a "buggy." Welcome to the Dirty South!!

On another note, I grew up in Orlando, Florida, and there were some eerie accuracies in John Green's Paper Towns. Though I can neither confirm nor deny it is possible to break into Sea World via a drainage ditch. He did spend some time growing up there (we would have gone to rival high schools had he stayed!)

Adrianne Russell said...

I'm excited to hear you're writing about Kansas. If you need another expert, let me know!

I was born and raised in Kansas City, MO and have spent a lot of time in various parts of Kansas and Missouri during my life. The Midwest is misunderstood and misrepresented A LOT.

Anybody writing about Kansas City needs to know the difference between Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO. They also need to know the "we're not in Kansas anymore" joke will get you copious eyerolls and possibly a verbal beatdown. :)

Stuffed Olive said...

I can't think of any book set in my home town (Hobart, Tasmania, Australia) that isn't a story set in the 19th Century either involving convicts, cannibals or both. To be fair, not much has changed since then and basing a contemporary novel off these probably wouldn't be far off.

I guess the most important thing about Hobart is that everyone here thrives on the cold. There is something of a misconception that, because we are strictly speaking part of Australia, it is warm here. It is not. And true Hobartians like it that way. We wear shorts and mini skirts at temperatures that would have the rest of Australia rugged up under fluffy blankets. The brilliantly terrible film "Arctic Blast" was set in Hobart, but, apart from the fact that they escaped Hobart by heading across the bridge INTO Hobart, they really missed the fact that everyone here would have thrived in the sudden onset of subarctic conditions. That said, we whine and carry on every Winter, but as soon as Summer sets in we are desperate for the cold. Essentially, Hobart is filled with vitamin d deficient shut-ins. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself.

Other facts about Hobart:
1. No one ever goes into town on a Sunday, not because of any religious restrictions, but because Hobart never quite grasped the concept of Sunday shopping and even once the shops began opening on Sundays, the people of Hobart couldn't quite bring themselves to add another day per week that they would leave the house.
2. We don't know what "late night shopping" is. Bars close at 11 and we only have two or three clubs which take turns shutting down when neighbourhood groups inevitably complain about the "deviant" element.
3. No matter how beautiful Hobart is to the rest of us, every single teenager DESPERATELY wants to escape.
4. Our population is primarily people over 90, though we also have a number of hippies or bushwalking types who are here for the trees (we have lots of trees). The rest of us are hermits who missed the one chance to escape at the end of high school and have since become brainwashed into loving the place.
5. The most exciting thing to happen in Tasmania was when a museum of old and new art opened which included a wall of vagina moulds. ...

Basically, I think that despite being the capital of our state, if people write about Hobart as though it is a small country town but with 100,000 old people, they would have it pretty well right.

tawney13 said...

I usually write about Arizona or Alaska because they are where my family lives. I try to get things right but change names of restaurants just so I don't have to worry about them getting angry that I used their name without permission. Sometimes in books and movies, Nome, Alaska is portrayed wrong.People say it has trees and mountains but it is actually by the ocean with plains surrounding it. I think books need to get the accuracy write.

Morgan York said...

I love all the stuff about New York in here! Lived there for a few years as a kid, so I smiled at the sentence about the doorman (though for me it was the concierge). And Central Park's nice, but it's even better to mention the other parks! Washington Square Park and its kickass fountain, anyone? And if someone wrote about Bleecker Street playground, I would faint with joy.

Now that I live in L.A. (blech) when I'm not at college, there are plenty of stereotypes that get on my nerves. There's the whole idea of Los Angeles folks going to the beach constantly--are you kidding? Do you know how much of a hassle it is to get all the way to the beach, which is at least a 45 minute drive in LA traffic if you're lucky? And those who write about LA as if Hollywood is the only part of it really need to research the San Fernando Valley.


Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I absolutely can't stand it (and I see it more in tv and movies) when something is set in Washington, DC, but all the characters say things like "the 495" when referring to the Beltway, or "the 95" when they mean I-95. NOBODY calls the highways here freeways, nor do we call them "the" followed by the number. I-495, or The Beltway. I-270.

I also grew up in Miami, and for the most part books I've read that are set there get it right.

As far as what I write, about half is set in places I'm familiar with (DC, Miami, Boston, Maine), or at least places I've visited (New York). For the actual locations I can't visit (but would love to), I rely heavily on Google Earth, travelogue websites, local town/tourism sites, and any personal accounts I can get my hands on.

Carrie-Anne said...

I write a lot of international historicals, set in places including Russia, Minsk, Kyiv, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium, France, Georgia, Armenia, and Persia. Someday I'd like to write some Japanese historicals, and maybe something set during the Golden Age of Islam. In my North American books, settings include Manhattan, Atlantic City, Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, Newark, Hudson Falls, and Minnesota.

My hometown is Albany, NY, and some of the books in my contemporary historical family saga are set there. It's so fun to write about places you know and love, instead of relying on research (like Russia) or your many trips there over many years (like Boston). I think William Kennedy is our most famous homegrown writer, and he's used Albany as the setting in a couple of his books.

Sarah Hipple said...

This was a fun one to read, and the comments were great! Sorry NY et al, but Hobart, Australia was the most fascinating (for me).

I'm from rural Pennsylvania. It thinks it's part of the South way more than most people realize. NASCAR, getting the first three days of buck season off school, people using dip/chew (the tobacco). In HS, I once put my English book on the floor while getting stuff from my locker then realized I'd accidentally stuck it in chew spit. Yuck!! Fortunately we were required to cover our books.

I don't remember ever seeing rural PA in a book. It's usually Philly that crops up. Sometimes Pittsburgh.

rjames112 said...

Well I doubt anyone would set a YA book in my hometown, a town like it is pretty rife for good YA fodder: smallish city (100,000) suburban and rural with some urban, army base, military college, upper level (Ivy equivalent) university, college, manufacturing plant, federal government regional offices, and several penitentiaries....

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