Where: Location, Location, Location—It’s Not Just Important for Real Estate!
Location is more than just a place on a map. It has a real affect on the behavior and attitude of your characters too. The obvious issue is urban vs. suburban vs. rural, and this factor will definitely predominate whether the story takes place in the United States, Europe, or Africa. But there are other things too, from food preferences to sports to laws, requiring your attention as you write of people in other places.
Scale, or How We Visualize Distances
Distance and transportation access are real issues affecting characters in any story location, but this also includes a very real change in scale, or how people view distances from place to place. For example, back in 1982, I spent eight weeks in a little place in Scotland called Edrom, which was quite rural and surrounded by sheep farms. One day we had the opportunity to attend a concert in Edinburgh. Coming from the Pacific Northwest in the United States, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was less than fifty miles—just over an hour away—but they packed the car as though for an entire day’s outing. Back home, my parents commuted an hour and a half each way to Seattle every day, a commute that included over an hour on a Washington State ferry, so it was difficult for me—who’d grown up in a very large scale area—to relate to the much smaller scale mind-set of the Scots.
Forty-eight miles was a long way to drive in Scotland in those days, but because my family had driven the 3,000 miles coast to coast across America three times back in the 1960s, I knew what real long distances looked like. (These family trips occurred in 1965 and 1966 before the U.S. Interstate system was completed, so we took the much slower U.S. highways most of the way.) My new friends in Scotland couldn’t even imagine those kinds of distances living in a country that was only 874 miles from the extreme southwest tip to the extreme northeast tip. When everything in your country is less than a thousand miles away, you simply don’t have the same perspective on distance as we do here in America, just as people who never leave New York or Washington, D.C., can never really understand how challenging it can be to get from city to city in the fly-over zone, and why we must have cars to get anywhere.
How Big or How High?
If you do live in the fly-over zone in America and have never been to a coast, you can’t know what a big body of water feels like. Yes, you can look at pictures, but pictures and even movies cannot replace knowing personally what it is like to stand on a Pacific or Atlantic beach. There is an immenseness to an ocean that you can’t get from any other body of water. At the same time, someone who only knows the crowded beaches of Atlantic City or Malibu can’t really picture what it’s like to walk along an empty, wild stretch of beach on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula on a rainy day.
Likewise, mountains feel quite different, depending upon what you have experienced. A story set in the Rockies or the Cascades will not read the same as a story set in the Appalachians or the Great Smokey Mountains, where altitude and year-round snow won’t be an issue. I remember when I was a kid, going back east to visit family and driving up into the Appalachians with my aunt and uncle to pick up one of my cousins at summer camp “in the mountains.” We got there, and my sister and I asked, “Where are the mountains?” Believe me, once you’ve crossed the Rockies or stood at the 10,000-foot level of Mount Rainier, every other mountain range, short of the Himalayas, seems small!
Why These Things Matter
The old adage, “Write what you know,” can be good advice when you’re telling a story, because, of course, it cuts out all sorts of necessary research. A simple scene in a restaurant can tell readers a lot about what the author knows about regional preferences. For example, my Southern friends can’t understand why I don’t like seafood, when in fact I do like it very much—when it’s not so spicy it bites back! (I have learned living in southern Mississippi that Cajun cooking is an acquired taste, and I am absolutely certain I will never acquire it!) Our Yankee visitors were sincerely shocked when they came to visit us while we were living in Kentucky and learned they had to drive fifty miles, or at least to the Tennessee state line, before they could buy any alcoholic beverages, since our county was dry. And just try wearing any jersey other than one from the New Orleans Saints’ during the NFL season in my current home town, and see how far you get without odd looks or comments. These are the details that make a story come alive, but they can also trip up storytellers who decide to stretch the geographic boundaries of their writing without thinking things through.
Remember, Research Is Your Friend . . .
This does not, of course, mean you need to go live someplace for a time before you can set a story there (though it might be fun), but you do need to be aware of the unique characteristics inherent in any location you select and research accordingly. Read books—both fiction and nonfiction—set in your location of choice and see how other writers deal with the specifics of a location’s topography and culture. Travel guides, memoirs, autobiographies, or even interviews can help you get a feel for a place through the firsthand experience of others.
The next time, we’ll look at the “why? or the “so what?” of a story.
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com