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?