By Jay Stringer
Mike’s piece from sunday -and my own ramblings over at my site- have set me thinking about location.
It seems more and more as I get older, I need stories with a string sense of place. I need the setting to be almost as important as the characters. In fact, it needs to BE a character.
It wasn’t always like this. I loved SCI FI and fantasy for a long time, but they seem to have lost their grip over the last decade, largely due to lacking that sense of place.
In the books I read, it’s vital. New York was the most important character in the Matt Scudder books. Writers like Al Guthrie, Scott Phillips and Ray Banks have managed to give enough of a voice to the settings of their work that you find yourself looking past the main characters and seeing a real world in the background.
And, of course, it doesn’t have to be a place that I know. Russel’s book THE GOOD SON is set in a city I’ve never visited in my life, but he put in enough solid groundwork to make it feel like a real place. And once it feels like a real place, then crazy shit can happen.
I think this comes from my need to have some kind of social element in my fiction, and these days crime is where you find the social writers.
This need isn’t just limited to books, though. If you look through my record collection you see it dominated by people who’ve managed to give voice to specific locales; whether it is Paul Westerberg’s tales of unrequited love on the skyway, The Hold Steady’s bar room drama’s of the mid west, Springsteen’s mythic New Jersey, or Strummer’s apocalyptic London.
My brain, and my tastes, somehow seem to be able to swallow a story much more comfortably if it takes place SOMEWHERE. Hell, in the Indiana Jones films, I’m the guy paying extra attention to the little animated maps, so I know where this particular horse chase is going down.
I mention all of this because I’ve found it vital to my writing, as well. A few times I’ve tried writing stories that don’t mention place, which can be set anywhere the reader wants. And I fail every time. It robs the characters of an accent, or a dialect, and it makes the rules of the world a little too flexible. I like writing about the area I grew up in, and perhaps exploring it a little through fiction. I’ve lived in Glasgow for three years now, and still don’t feel comfortable writing stories set here, because it somehow doesn’t feel like I can give the place a real voice yet.
I took a trip back to my hometown at the weekend, and did a lot of thinking. One thing that struck me is that it’s an area that has no fictional tradition in the modern market. It had a huge impact on music, and has a rich history for any novelist who wants to look at, say, the pub bombings, the unions or the gun crime. And yet there is no voice in print. With Mike's recent post in mind, I wonder if this is a good thing –that I have fresh territory to make my own- or a bad thing –that I want to give voice to a region that publishers might not be interested in?