Friday, July 12, 2013

Location, Location, Location

This week, my family has enjoyed hosting relatives who are visiting from lands far, far away.  From Florida and Ohio, to be exact.  We did some big touristy things in the first few days which were lots of fun, but when it came to knowing my local vicinity, I fell short of being the best tour guide.  A few minutes on the internet acquainted me with some of the offerings of our small town and immediate area, and tomorrow we’re off to see a giant sequoia grove which I had no idea was a mere 45 miles away.  The smaller, less traveled roads will turn out to be just as memorable to us, and maybe more so.

I think the same is true of setting in fiction.  Big, exotic locales are not always necessary to capture a reader’s interest.  As long as the location is believable and fully established, it will play into the plot and lend authenticity to the story.  Sometimes the setting is the story.

One of the great books that really drew me in as a child was Blue Willow by Doris Gates. The story is about a migrant farm family in California’s San Joaquin Valley during the Depression, and you can almost taste the grit in your teeth from the dry fields and feel the intense heat pressing your shadow into the dirt. But this is a simple story of a child’s hope, and you are glad for the refreshing cool breezes of fortune that lift this family from dire poverty as the story progresses. Twenty years and 3,000 miles later, we moved to that same general area and I found some parts of it to be little changed from what she had described.  I was amazed that the author could so effectively use the dirt and the heat and the poverty to draw out a beautiful story.  As a writer, I would not have had the insight to see the story in the unremarkable setting.  (As a disclaimer, I will add that not all of the San Joaquin Valley is like this. Much of it is gorgeous and green with the graceful symmetry of well-ordered vineyards.)

With that said, I consider my own immediate locale and the possibilities.  What am I missing that would tell a great story in this place where I live and breathe and work? ‘Write what you know’ can become ‘write where you know.’  I’ve seen my town in all its seasons, in calamity and near-disasters, through record-setting heat, unexpected snowfalls and scorching fires. The people lean a certain way and they still say ‘Merry Christmas.’  They’re not afraid of challenge.  It’s not known as ‘The Endurance Capitol’ for nothing.  I need to haunt the museums and seek out the people who’ve kept record of life here for the past hundred years. I need to sit in on a few city council meetings to get the flavor of the movers and the shakers, gather brochures from the visitor’s center and discover what I’ve missed.  I need to peel back the layers of my limited experience in these square miles and find the story worth telling.  Who better than someone who has lived here for the past sixteen years?  

How about you?  Have you considered where you live and breathe and work to have story potential or do you always look for a setting where the grass is greener?


Patti Hill said...

Debbie, I loved Blue Willow, but I didn't read it until I was a teacher determined to read all the Newberry Award winners.

I love stories with a strong sense of place. All of my books are set where I live in Colorado. My next book, and I'm getting a little wild here, is set in the small beach town where I grew up. I know the pattern of the fog, and the rhythm of the trains, and the pull of the currents. I'm very uncomfortable writing stories of places I don't know. I've made one trip to San Clemente to refresh my memory. I wouldn't mind a couple more. Soon.

Marian said...

When I read a book I usually (without really thinking about what I am doing) impose a picture of a place I already know. This probably changes the story from the one the author intended, but that's what happens when I read.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Patti, what a great setting and perfect excuse to hang out at the beach. Is it still as small?
Marian, I think we need a visual to hang the story on when we're reading. I'll bet you're in good company.

Martina Boone said...

I Love BLUE WILLOW! I still have a copy sitting on my bookshelf. And I collect antique blue willow because of that book? :)

Thanks for the lovely post!

susan gregory said...

I would love to write a book set in the beauty of NC but since I write about people from Biblical times, that probably isn't going to happen.
Good thing I enjoy research!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Debbie, I love this post. You make a wonderful point about the importance of setting to a story, and the validity of writing "where you know." My own writing has evolved over the years to where I now do exactly that ... write where I know. And I've experienced what it means to readers to read about places they know.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Martina, the story gave me an appreciation for the plates, also. They certainly tell a story.
Susan, you could do both :)
Sharon, you have a choice of a lot of places you know. Lucky!

Denise Covey said...

I agree with you to the extent that I did 3 blog posts on LOCALE AS SETTING. I love a well-crafted setting and that's why certain books remain timeless, as setting has been delivered so truthfully we never forget it.


If you're interested, here is what one author guest posted on the topic:

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, Denise, I'll check it out. Thanks for stopping by.