Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hometown Blues

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?


pattinase (abbott) said...

Where is your hometown? It would give your post a sense of place (only joking about that, of course.)
So far I have only written short stories but I often set them in a fictional place called Shelterville so as to let the reader relate to them without bias. Detroit carries an awful lot of baggage in terms of expectations/perceptions.

Noel Ayers said...

I completely agree. I remember being so sad at the end of Rocket Boys because the coal mining town of the book ceased to exist. It felt like the book had ended by killing off one of my favorite characters.

Great post but I am also curious about your home town.

I would also submit that the only thing worse than having your home ignored as a setting would be to have it completely misrepresented.

Dana King said...

Outstanding post. A sense of place can be the unifying force that holdsa story and characters together, and provides foreshadowing even if the author doesn't want to be overt about it.

A crime story set in Chicago has a certain feel just by noting it's in Chicago. Use some specific locations and insider stuff and you'll drawn people into a world real enough for them to suspend disbelief a time or two elsewhere in your story.

The place doesn't even have to be "real." Is there anyone who has read much Ed McBain who doesn't think of Isola as "real," even if they've never been to New York.

Full disclosure: I started writing while living near Chicago, and my early stories are all set there. I moved away 13 years ago, and my locations have gradually shifted back toward my hometown of Pittsburgh, though I live halfway between Washington and Baltimore now.

Scott D. Parker said...

Jay - I am with you regarding the social nature of crime writing. It's one of the major things that drew me toward Pelecanos and Lehane. However, when I started writing stories like that, I realized I didn't have the background for it. So, it's one of my first tastes of "Things I like to read vs. Thing I can write." For me, the puzzle story seems easier.

Regarding sense of place and one's hometown, I am a third generation Houstonian. There is virtually no literature set here in Houston. As I write on my blog, one of my goals as a writer is to help put Houston on the crime fiction map. It's the fourth biggest city in the US, the biggest on the Gulf Coast. Why aren't more stories written here? I aim to find out and rectify the situation.

Lein Shory said...

The key is whether you notice the absence of place.

If you do, it's a problem.

If you don't, it isn't.

John McFetridge said...

My experience with publishers is that they are pretty open mindeed and don't know what they want until they read it.

I heard for years that books set in Canada wouldn't sell in the US, but that hasn't been my experience. Sometimes I think it's just a polite way to turn something down, making the rejection more general and not personal. I'd much rather hear, "The Canadian setting would be too tough a sell for our market," instead of, "Your book is crap."

Put your hometown on the crime fiction map. Whatever that town is.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I set much of my work in a fictional Maine town that is an amalgam of places of lived and known. As far as I'm concerned, a strong sense of place is just as important as character, dialogue and plot. In fact, it tends to influence those other aspects of the story.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Sorry, that should have read "places I've lived and known."

Jay Stringer said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad that I don't seem to be alone with my little 'setting fetish.'

and it's good to see I've got you interested in where my hometown is, there's half the job of a writer right there! Just so you know, it's the Black Country in England, a collection of towns (and one city) with a population of around a million. It's named for it's long gone coalmines and factories, and the smog of the industrial revolution.

It's been one of the focul points of immigration ever since that industrial boom, and has an interesting history, aswell as issues with drugs and guns. Widen the net a little, and I have the whole of the Midlands to write about, which has a population the same as Scotland, and a history that includes pub bombings in the seventies that were attributed to the IRA.

Rich pickings for a writer, I hope!