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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