March 5, 2008

Writing Home: Using One's Home Town for Setting


Creating fiction requires many essentials. One needs characters, a plot, setting, time period, and other factors which narrow the concept down to a point where the author may begin to write. Setting is key; and, as it often is with literature, characters are based on the writer’s persona, and very often, the characters live in where the writer does. How many authors can you name whose works place their protagonist in the very town where they grew up or where they currently live? I’ll give you one: Nelson DeMille has written books set on Long Island where he currently resides, and in New York City where he was born. This is a practice which I have only recently embraced.

My first novel, “The Tin Age,” is set in suburbia, and the main character, Martin Spratt, is a county police officer. I imagined the county based on the one where I reside and added many of the qualities which made this setting attractive to me: Hamlets full of quiet, tree lined streets, wooded areas on the outskirts of towns, and a government structure which allows for a full service, county-wide police department were the factors I needed to make the story work. In retrospect, instead of concocting a name, I should have simply utilized the actual region where I live as it would have been familiar to any potential local audience.

That is an attractive aspect to applying this technique as the residents of the municipality depicted in your story would be more likely to read your work and create buzz for you and your novel. This is a factor not lost on literary agents and publishers; in addition, this type of ingredient in a story works when employed the moment the task of writing the manuscript is begun. In my case with my fictional county, it would take a little effort to change village and street names to match existing locations; but, none of these roads and communities is described accurately in this story and a major re-write would then be in order to achieve authenticity. It is best to plot your location as well as your storyline at the outset as the two are intertwined.

With fiction, writing about genuine locations is useful if one wishes to add color, depth, and breadth to the story. Each locale has a unique and rich history. Customs are inbuilt, and reasonable expectations can be placed on climate, local customs, geography, and the speech of its inhabitants. Using one’s own native state, town, or actual place of birth allows a writer to draw upon their own individual experiences and include them in the narrative, albeit an imagined one.

For example, a writer may draft a scene where two brothers are walking to school. In an imaginary town, more elements may have to be explained to the audience by the author because the reader may not have a clue as the where these school boys are. The reader sees a blank, nondescript boulevard the boys are traveling on, and illustrative gaps need to be filled in by an author with different ideas than his or her audience. Experiences of the reading audience dictate how they perceive your imagined community. The more closely the reader connects with your characters' surroundings, then the more the reader gets from reading your book. If you write about a genuine place, then existing structures and sites can enrich your writing.

You can save yourself some time and set the story in San Francisco, for example, and mostly everyone knows that the roads there are all hilly, and the reader envisions streetcars as well. Write about real cities and towns and you draw the reader in. Use the environs of a region where you reside, and you’re an authority. The knowledge you have of the locale and the facts you provide enhance what you put down on paper.

With my latest novel, “The Daddy Rock,” I used my native Long Island as the backdrop. This allowed me to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the landscape as my protagonist, Roger Price, migrated from the low lying, seaside marinas along south shore to the rocky and elevated north shore. My childhood was spent growing up in a small hamlet by the Great South Bay. My south shore sensibilities are apparent in Roger as he is transplanted to the more affluent north shore hugging the Long Island Sound where I’ve settled and decided to raise my family. Familiarity with my place of birth allows me to effectively guide my characters and blend them seamlessly into a world with a readily available supply of buildings, landmarks, customs, and people where they can interact and play out the drama. Also, it is always easier to write about a place you are passionate about. Frequent readers of this blog are aware of my deep affection for my home, Long Island. That made writing my latest novel more natural.

In summary, when writing fiction, a valuable shortcut to creating a story’s setting may be to place your characters in the very town where you live in order to draw upon your own knowledge of the area, take advantage of a local audience, and to rely on local history, customs, geography, and landmarks to help you tell your tale. On a side note, I am writing a novel about a young man who joins the Russian Army and I may have to relocate to Moscow for a few years. Do they have the internet in Russia?

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32 comments:

ROTUS said...

You have been tagged with the dread six word memoir meme.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Mr. Grudge, I agree with writing about a familiar setting, especially for new writers. This is a time of finding one's voice, and a natural flow of words happens when the imagery remains vivid throughout the story.It's inhaled atmosphere that the reader can connect with.

Steven Pressfield has written GATES OF FIRE, which is a fiction work about the Spartan warriors. I just completed reading his book and I would swear he was channeling as I saw the settings through his characters' eyes. So you can become familiar with settings through research also and I tip my hat to those who do it successfully. Steven was invited to Sparta as an honored guest after his book was released. :D

Hugs, JJ

Mike French said...

I agree it's a good idea if it gives the prose an air of authencitity.

Or you can take several geographical areas and merge them into one fictious setting that draws on authentic imagery.

Or you can use a real place but darken it or change it a bit like New York becoming Gotham City in Batman.

Winter said...

Well, it is said that one should always write about what one knows. However, I wouldn't ever set a story in my hometown. I hate that place! I would use different areas of LA though.

The Bar Story is set in a fictional suburb of Paris along the Marne River, where all the people are Immortals. I didn't choose Paris. It was already in place when I came along. But, I did create the fictional neighborhood in La Varenne-St. Hilaire. Since it's fictional, we do what we like!

Swubird said...

Mr. Grudge:

Very good advice, as usual. I write mostly non-fiction, and as you've probably noticed already, I typically use surroundings that I am familiar with. I did write a piece about the assassination of Lincoln one time, and that required a lot of research. I wanted the scenes to be real, so I actually traveled to DC and walked the streets where my story took place.It was fun. We made a vacation out of it. But, of course, I can't afford to travel everywhere for every story. But I envy those who have the resources to do just that. But with the Internet, we can find a lot of material - maps and and old pictures that can help out a lot.

Thanks for the lesson. When will we see your book in print?

Have a nice day.

Kristyn said...

This is excellent advice, Mike! I know it would work beautifully with large cities and regions like New York! I've never done this because I live in a tiny little town in central Texas, where nothing at all happens, and it happens frequently.

There have been days, when the wind is blowing through the trees and it's nearly sunset and I think my town would make the perfect small town setting. Perhaps I'll try setting a story here, as you suggest.

Thank you for the great advice!

Best,
Kristyn

Bob Johnson said...

Hey Mike great advice, totally makes sense, like with JJ the stories she tells about her local, the passion and expertise jumps out at you, lol about the internet in Moscow.

footiam said...

Even if you use your hometown as a setting, sometimes certain things need to be explained if you are targeting a wider audience. I suppose readers from Asia, proficient in English and always fed on a diet of books and TV programmes in English would not have a problem reading a book from America or Britain. I wouldn't be surprised if say, a westerner have a problem understanding a book set in an unknown place in Asia for example, especially when there is a disparity in culture.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Rotus!
Thnaks for the tag. I'll get to it by the end of the week. It's great to have you stop by. Check back for my response to your meme. Thnaks again. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JJ,
Thanks for suggesting Steven Pressfield. I that type of story, especially if the author gets it right. For new writers, my technique here can work as it maks it easier for the author to concentrate more on the story and less on research. When an area is bnatural to the writer, the story retains authenticity. Thnaks for the comment and i loo forward to reading more of you fine blog. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Mike,
Wecome to "Creative Writing for Novices," (ENG102A200704). I employed this technique later in my writing life after I had characters travel back in time and after I flung another one into the frothy, belching, cesspool-like bowels of Hell. It would have been easier if I stuck with keeping my protaganist close to home so I could work on strengthening my prose and not research the past or creating a whole world. Some can do this with ease; but, we all have our own styles. Thanks for the comment, Mike1. I appreciate it. -Mike (M2).

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Winter,

"The Bar Story is set in a fictional suburb of Paris along the Marne River, where all the people are Immortals."

I need to head over to the bar and check out the immortals. As far as hating your home town...use that angst for a great story! Thanks for the comment Winter. I have been so busy lately, I haven't had time to blog. I appreciate you coming by and reading my articles. have a great week. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Swubird,
"I did write a piece about the assassination of Lincoln one time, and that required a lot of research. I wanted the scenes to be real, so I actually traveled to DC and walked the streets where my story took place."

I'd love to read your piece on Lincoln. It must be faqcinating. As far as reading any book on my work, I'll send you the hundreds of rejection letters first. Then we can talk about reading my aging, yellowing, manuscripts. Thanks, Swubird. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Bob,
I apologize for not getting over to your blog...or anyone else's for that matter, for the last two weeks or so. I have been so busy with my real job, as opposed to writing which I the profession I'd love to have, that i have had no time to blog. Plus, I have a few people in my life called "family" I have to pay attention to. Thanks again, Bob. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
"I've never done this because I live in a tiny little town in central Texas, where nothing at all happens, and it happens frequently."
There's a lot to write about in a town where nothing happens. That means you have a clean slate to start with. Hmmmm? Nothing happens? -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi footiam,
"Even if you use your hometown as a setting, sometimes certain things need to be explained if you are targeting a wider audience."
You're abslolutely correct fooitam, but the point of this piece is to use an authorative voice to create a setting for one's story, and the place where you live is familiar. You have to still explain culture, dialect, etc, but then you'd be authoratative on the matter. Thanks, footiam. -Mike.

Nancy Williams said...

Great advice. Can I ask though, would you make up a fictional street name, or would you be accurate right down to that detail? I want to plot out a murder mystery, but I am worried about being too precise about where it happens (in case the owner of the place gets upset!). Have you experienced this before? How would you handle it?

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Nancy,
You raise and interesting question. In practice, I can and do change certain street or business names to avoid revealing too much about myself, or calling attention to anyone living at that address. I use the overall neighborhood, it's scenery, and the landscape. in my latest story, I will detail main roads, but I placed my characters in a fictional store (for a scene invloving a shooting) which in real life does not exist and is actually a vacant lot. The technique I describe here is to use familiar territory to avoide time traps, i.e. "it takes longer than ten minutes to get from the Triborough Bridge to the southern State Parkway," and to describe details about an area which make it more enticing to a reader because the knowledge a resident has of an area is more intimate. One may be aware of the Empire State Building in Manahattan, but fewer people are aware of the shops and restaurants nearby. use your town, or any are you are familiar with for a story's backdrop because it is an easy venue to place your protaganist and the supporting cast for your story. But, be wise in revealing too many details which can trouble someone actually living at an address, or be an actual business. The idea in this story is an example of my technique, and is only a suggestion. Thanks for stopping by and reading my article. Have a great day.

Maureen said...

That was my question; would you not be worried about repercussions if you used actual names of streets, local shops and the like? I guess it would be dependant upon the type of story. Wouldn't it?

But I love the idea of writing what you know; and the way some people actually travel to the locales in which their story lies. That would be wonderful.

Scout said...

I have written just one novel and a few few short stories, and I use my small town and its surroundings as the backdrop in every case. It's full of color and potential, and it's what I know. My fear in developing characters is ending up with something like Payton Place. I guess using reality as a background and being
imaginative with the rest is the key.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Maureen,
"That was my question; would you not be worried about repercussions if you used actual names of streets, local shops and the like?"

Yes, I definitely change certain street names and use phony businesses to avod conflict. I wouldn't want curiosity seekers raoming my neighborhood looking for my house. Thanks for te excellent point. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Scout,

"I have written just one novel and a few few short stories..."

Writing one novel and even one short story is a huge accomplishment. Most people do not even read let alone write. I work in a college and you'd be surprised at the faculty, educated people, who send e-mails, memos, and other communications which are illegible. You wrote a novel? Be proud, consider it a worthy accomplishment, and continue to write your stories based on your home town. It will not be like Peyton Place as it comes from you, and your literary voice is unique. Thank you very much for reading my post and for leaving a comment. -Mike.

Anna said...

Yes they do have Internet in Russia, lol. Russia may be interesting setting for your novel. However, I want to come back and comment on your post. It is really informative, and I tell you not only can write novels but to teach how to write them. I picked up some good ideas. Sometimes I find myself thinking about writing something, and it always comes back to the surroundings I grew up with, and may be travelled places. I read once a novel, and I remember author had preface where he stated how much investigation was done to all the places mentioned. Mike, I am not a writer, I can only click the camera, but if I hang out enough here I can pick up some good ideas. Thanks for sharing, and hope you will be back soon to blogsphere, and don't work too hard. Sorry for late comment...Anna :)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Anna,

"Mike, I am not a writer, I can only click the camera, but if I hang out enough here I can pick up some good ideas."

You are a writer when you refer to yourself as one and practice the craft as if your life depends upon you being successful. But then, writers never truly are satisified with their work, are they? Take that step, Anna, write. -Mike.

Jack Payne said...

Good marketing payoff, too, for home-setting writing, Mike. Two years ago, over a 3-month period, my novel, Six Hours Past Thursday, got hot in the Chicago area--the familiar haunts that formed the setting for the book--and I got 142copies into public and college libraries there.

Tomas Karkalas said...

Dear Mr. Grudge.
Thank you for the wonderful sharing. While reading your article on how to write, I was reminded of the need to make the captivating activity of the writing the understandable to the readers too.
Your article have taught me how my emotions could become the pictorial to all - the key is the setting
Thank you.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Jack,
"...and I got 142copies into public and college libraries there."

That's a great point about the libraries. Congratulations on your success there. I have many friends who are librarians, and they stated that if (by some miracle) I ever do get published, they will lobby for their library directors to purchase my books. At this point, that's like saying I hope to get into Heaven when I die. Thanks Jack. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hello Tomas,
"Your article have taught me how my emotions could become the pictorial to all - the key is the setting."

Thank you for this helpful point. The closer one is to the setting, in this case one's home town, the more emotion one can attach to their writing. Thank you for a thoughtful contribution here, Tomas, and thank you for reading my article. -Mike

Anna said...

Mike you said, 'Take that step, Anna, write' - Mike I will, after all it is fun. Thanks again, Anna :)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Anna.
"Mike you said, 'Take that step, Anna, write' - Mike I will, after all it is fun. Thanks again, Anna :)"

You're very welcome, Anna.

J Sherer said...

Great post, Mr. Grudge. I think you're right on, characters have integrity and authenticity when they're familiar (I wrote a similar post a couple months ago).

I'm glad I stumbled onto your blog! My brother, who writes Living Infinitely is also part of the Society of Midnight Wanderers. It's cool to see you guys putting out good work. I am not part of the society, but would be interested in joining. If you get a chance stop by my blog (http://constructingstories.blogspot.com). Thanks for your post!

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi J. Sherer,

"My brother, who writes Living Infinitely is also part of the Society of Midnight Wanderers. It's cool to see you guys putting out good work. I am not part of the society, but would be interested in joining."

We'd love to have you aboard. There's a link on my front page here called "Click here to send me an e-mail." Drop me a qucik line and I'll confer with my partner and we'll get you going.

Yes, characters do have an authenticity in their native surroundings, and portraying such real charcters happens when one writes about a setting he/she is familiar with. Thnaks for your comment, it is appreciated. -Mike.