Jul 12 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Don’t Use Your Hometown as a Setting

Published by at 9:45 pm under Setting,Writing Articles

Conclusion 1: Don’t set a story in your hometown or place of birth.

“I should write what I know. And I’m from Chicago. Why shouldn’t I set my story in Chicago, B. Mac?” The problem isn’t what you know, but what your readers don’t. And your readers don’t know Chicago! Unless your target audience is the residents of a particular location, using your hometown as a setting will probably cause you to incorrectly assume that certain geographic cues are common knowledge.  For example, at least one remarkably competent author (Meg Cabot) has assumed that everyone will know that the residents of Greenwich Village are hippies. Erm. That may be well-known in New York, but I doubt even half of Americans outside the Northeast knew that.  And I suspect that the number is even lower for non-Americans.  Frankly, if your writing forces even 10% of your readers to fumble, you probably need to fix it.

Even worse, hometown stories tend to skimp on vital description because they assume it will be superfluous. “My readers already know what Brooklyn looks like, so I don’t need to describe the neighborhood or people.” For your own sake, assume your reader doesn’t know what Brooklyn looks like.

Conclusion 2: Drawing heavily on your background may irritate your readers (“Montana Syndrome”).

The Eragon series is notorious for long and grueling journeys through desolate wastelands. Not coincidentally, the author is from a state that is a desolate wasteland (hence “Montana Syndrome”). Rambling descriptions of howling winds and jagged peaks appeal to some people.  Which kind of people?  Montanans.

Conclusion 3: Using your hometown or region may cause you to inanely lecture readers.

For example, alternative history writer Harry Turtledove seems conspicuously drawn to the idea that the Civil War wasn’t at all about slavery.  It seems a bit unusual that his Southern characters never have slaves.  After the South wins the Civil War, it outlaws slavery because France and Britain ask it to.   “Well, I guess we just lost a million people fighting for self-governance, but I guess we could give that up because they asked nicely.”  Also, in every book his characters remind us that Southern cigarettes are better than Northern ones.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Writing Tip of the Day: Don’t Use Your Hometown as a Setting”

  1. Willon 14 Jul 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I agree with your basic point, that people should articulate things in their stories, but I think everyone who has heard of the village knows what it is. The village is world famous for being home to hippies and beats — this isn’t true before, but anyone with a passing familarity to the beats or ginsberg or the ramones. That’s a fact that you could assume that most educated europeans would know, as well as most well read americans. I would put that on the same level as saying “the big apple” or “gotham” refer to New York City.

    Kafka Was the Rage was a good book about it. If you’ve ever seen the show mad men, a huge subplot was about the differences between the suits and the artists, and that took place in the village.

  2. B. Macon 14 Jul 2008 at 8:36 pm

    I will try to find a copy of Kafka Was the Rage. Thanks.

  3. Cadet Davison 15 Jul 2008 at 12:17 pm

    B. Mac, you suggested that not “even half of Americans outside the Northeast knew” that the Village was a den of hippies. I think the issue is as much location as generation. The Village hasn’t been really renowned as a bastion of hippie culture since maybe the beatniks. Will, would you mind saying which decade you were born in and whether you live in the Northeast? My hypothesis is that familiarity with the Village is a given for anyone above the age of 35 or in the New York media zone.

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