Location, location, location

An author friend of mine, an author that has known some success, and knows more about writing than I do, told me that the setting for his latest novel is Long Island, New York. Having lived in Long Island for three years back in the early 80’s, I was intrigued.

“Really,” I said to him, “Nassau, or Suffolk?” He didn’t know how to answer, but he did tell me the name of a town that I recognized. I went on to tell him that I lived for a time in Huntington Station, New York, which is in Suffolk County. Then I pressed him about his regional knowledge of that area – not because I was trying to embarrass him, or impress him with my esoteric knowledge of Long Island, but because I was curious as to why he chose that location as the setting for a novel – especially since his novel did not have to be set in that location for any particular reason.

My author friend finally confessed that he had never been to Long Island, or even New York for that matter, but he told me with great confidence, that with the tools available on the internet, today’s author can set a novel in practically any location they choose. By using MapQuest to locate streets and by using Google Earth and Street View to zoom in on actual locales, one can effectively write a novel set in any particular area without ever having set foot in Westhampton, Shinnecock Hills, or Amagansett.

I retreated from the conversation unconvinced.  I recall an article that I read many years ago in a magazine. I cannot remember who wrote the article, but it was an interview with a successful published author. It was one of those advice type articles, directed at novice writers trying to write their first published work. There was lots of good advice in the article, but I’ve retained only the following:

“Never, ever set a novel in New York City unless you know the town.”

Notice that the writer was quite emphatic about this particular point. While the writer spoke only of New York City, I suspect that the advice might be expanded to include many other large metropolitan areas, like Los Angeles and Chicago.

The author went on to explain that New Yorkers buy lots of books, and since many New Yorkers have lived in the city all of their lives, they will smell a phony in…well…a New York minute. Don’t alienate the New Yorkers!

I suppose it depends somewhat upon the breadth of the creative piece that a writer is trying to develop. It would probably be possible to set a short story in say, an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by doing a bit of internet research, as long as the action doesn’t ‘leave the house’. Move your characters out onto the street, and then you’d better know the lay of the land. If your CIA agent meets her contact at the Feast of San Gennaro, you’d better, at some point in life, have walked Mulberry Street between Houston and Canal (something I have done, but I used the internet to verify that Houston to Canal Street part, thus highlighting my point that the internet is a useful tool for detail, but it does not take the place of the experience).

There are exceptions. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the epic Tarzan series of adventure books wrote prolifically about Africa, without ever having set foot on the continent. It is important to note, however, that Burrough’s work was consumed by an early 20th century audience who, like him, knew little of Africa either. Perhaps the more sophisticated the audience, the more regional knowledge the writer needs to effectively create a believable piece (and unless we are writing pure fantasy, we all want to write a believable piece – that’s the goal, right?).

I am wondering how others feel about this very important topic. You have the plot, you have the characters. Now where do you put them? Is it your hometown, a place you visit regularly, or maybe where you vacation? After reading some Nicholas Sparks (trying to find out what that guy is doing right), I suspect that he knows quite a bit about the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and I doubt he learned all he knows by searching the internet. I mean, has Google Street View ever swept through Rodanthe?

Hemingway once reflected that it was difficult for him to set his work in his present physical location. He felt that his 1937 classic novel, To Have and Have Not, a novel set primarily in Cuba and Florida, would have been much better had he not written most of it while living in Key West. He found that he wrote best about places he had left some years before.

In my own work, I am finding that Papa was onto something. As a native Midwesterner, I find it easier to write to mundane cities out on the Plains (The DUI Guy is set in suburban Chicago), than it is to set my characters in Florida, where I currently live – perhaps I shall have to move to New York in order to write the perfect Florida book.

In any case, I would be interested in your thoughts.

Until next post,

Mahalo,

Ed

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7 thoughts on “Location, location, location

  1. Your observation that New Yorkers would smell a phony, is oh so true. I grew up in Rockville Centre and my Dad lived in the Chelsea Hotel. If someone started to describe that place from research I would know immediately. Artists types walking their iguanas into the elevator and all night debacle sounds ala Sid and Nancy, have to be experienced to relate to readers. I haven’t read your DUI Guy. Maybe this week. I know nothing of Chicago. A great writer can make me feel right at home.
    Albuquerque NM is all spirit. You would almost have to have camped in the Gila Wilderness.

  2. There is no substitute for experience. I have not camped in the Gila Wilderness, and therefore I would definitely not want to try to describe that in a piece of fiction – I might fool a few people, maybe a lot of people, but I would still feel phony. I did do some camping, when I was younger, up in Colorado in some of the country that is being flooded right now, so I could probably write a bit about that country, but not New Mexico. I looks beautiful from everything I have seen. Thanks so much for reading.

  3. Even when writing a fantasy piece, it is important to have a sense of a real place. I try to find places that are similar, or base spaces on places I have been.
    As for real cities, I agree it is important to have actually at least been there – especially New York. I live near Los Angeles, and was watching the Californians skit from Saturday Night Live. They listed one of many freeway junctions, which distracted me because those freeways don’t connect. While it was an overall joke, it was a quick reminder of the importance of knowing where you’re talking about.

    • While I have not read a lot of fantasy, I probably should not have minimized the importance of location in that genre as well. Thank you for pointing that out. Thanks for reading, and for taking time to comment.

      • I appreciate you acknowledging the fantasy genre at all, and you do have a point. If I were to write a story about New York, having never been there, it would probably look like a fantasy version.

  4. I belong to a writer’s group that meets monthly here in Ft. Lauderdale. A number of our members write fantasy, and some of them have published some wonderful work. Writing is hard work no matter how you look at it.

  5. For me the importance of spending substantial time in a place which makes up the setting of a story has to do with having allowed the scent and feel of the place settle in your bones. The people, the rythmn of life in the place, the multifaceted levels of social discourse in the place is what enriches the writing, I think. I would be cautious about warning that New Yorkers would know if the writer is not really familiar with the city. The fact is that so many of those who call themselves New Yorkers are transplants from all over the country, particularly young men and women in their twenties who tend to focus their personal lives outside of work in specific geographical areas and don’t venture outside those areas to learn about and explore the city as a whole- but this is an aside.

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