Sunday, March 7, 2010

Splits, Hits, and Chips

As I'm writing this it's cold and snowy. By the time you read this I will be in Florida where it will be warm(ish) and sunny without snow. Going on vacation has me thinking about locations. While I'm not one who spends a whopping amount of time describing scenery in my fiction, I am always inspired by cool locations. Any time I find myself some place new, or interesting, my brain immediately begins piecing together stories that would work for the place.

Sometime they don’t always come right away, like a story I wanted to write after I came back from visiting Las Vegas for the first time, but they always come. Sometimes I have a story idea floating in my heading waiting for the right location, and other times I have a great location that is searching for a story.

But one location that has fascinated me for years but hasn't really fed much into my fiction is the casino. I always enjoyed movies and books about Las Vegas and I loved heist stories set in Vegas, but I grew up in a family that wasn't really into gambling so I never went to one until I was in my twenties. Even then, I was in Canada with a buddy of mine and we ate a restaurant with a casino attached so on a lark we both went in and put a couple quarters in a slot machine and that was the end of it.

But when I started dating Becky, we were going downtown Detroit a lot for football games and restaurants and such and the easiest and cheapest place to park was the Greektown Casino. You can park in their garage and take the People Mover to any other location downtown and then at the end of the night you just have to go into the casino to a machine to validate the parking ticket. It was great and she, who had been to several casinos by this point, talked me into visiting them and I loved it. I can't stand slots, but I love to play Blackjack. Now I'm the one who drags her to the casinos.

So we've been to all three Detroit casinos, the Caesar's Casino in Windsor, Soaring Eagle up by Central Michigan University, some sketchy backyard casino in the Upper Pennisula, two casinos in Niagra Falls, one in Arizona, and about six in Las Vegas. But so far I've only written two stories with casino settings, and even those are just peripheral scenes. I've never written a casino story and I can't figure out why. It seems like a setting ripe for fiction. And I've never turned away from writing about a place just because it's been written about so many times (how many friggin' strip club stories have I written??) so I don’t know what the answer is.

I suspect it has to do with my desire to write a big, fat, romping, heist novel at some point and I don’t want to spoil any of the magic. I also suspect it has to do with the research that would be required to write a good casino story. While all of the stuff on the floor is neat to see and think about, so much of what makes a casino a cool location for fiction is behind the scenes. Any of the characters: dealers, bartenders, waitresses, even janitors, do their job differently at a casino than they would anywhere else because of the security issues and to write them true I'd have to know more than I do.

So how about you all out there, what's a location you have a lot of exposure to but have never used in fiction? And for the readers, what are your thoughts on casinos and casinos in fiction?


John McFetridge said...

Ha, I'm workig on a casino novel right now. Though it's more about the entertainment side, a band playing the nostalgia circuit getting in the middle of something. I wrote a couple of flash fictions to test it out.

I use this site sometimes for research.

I think a casino is a great location because of the variety of characters you find there - and a lot of them in the middle of some real drama. And there's a lot of money and drugs floating around.

But I have to research everything because anything I'm familiar with is pretty boring.

Mike Dennis said...

I live in Las Vegas, Bryon, and I can tell you it's tough writing a casino novel. It's so very easy to slip comfortably into stereotyping that you wind up sabotaging your own work before you even really get going.

Want to write a casino heist novel? It had better surpass OCEANS ELEVEN (new version) for heist originality and detail. Want to write a mob/casino novel? You better be able to outdo the great novel and movie, CASINO.

I could go on, but you get my point. I've written a novel set in Las Vegas, but with only tangential connections to casinos. It focuses more on the grittier side of town, where the tourists never go. As soon as I get done with my current WIP, I'm going back to it for a redo.

But, nevertheless, casinos are full of allure and mystery, and therefore are natural settings for well-thought-out novels.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I lived for a year in northern England but have not really exploited it, always feeling a bit outside the culture. Of course, that could be the story.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Mike, agreed about the bar being set so high. The best Las Vegas novel I've read in a long time was Charles Bock's BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN. If I ever do a casino book it will be a Detroit casino book which is a whole different animal.

Patti, an outsider is a great way to write about places I'm too lazy to research fully. It also gives readers a new perspective on some place they're familiar with

John McFetridge said...

Bryon, I agree, Beautiful Children is a terrific book. I loved the line about how hard it was to bean environmentalist in a city you could see from the moon.

And it really gave a different view of Vegas, the teens' POV was very good.

Something like that about Detroit would also be pretty interesting, I think, a placethat a lotof people think they know something about because it's in the news but that's probably a completely different place for people growing up there now with no connection to the history and more immedite concerns.

Chris said...

I have a deep loathing for casinos. Most people think of "classy" casinos from movies, big buildings full of machines and card tables and people having fun, etc. Here in Montana, every restaurant, bar and convenience store has a "casino" attached to it: stinky little chambers with a few keno machines and sad-faced people keeping them half-full at any hour of the day. When I moved back to Montana after 12 years out in the Seattle area, the biggest, saddest change was the addition of all these little casinos. I hate them.

As a story idea, though, it is fertile soil. For me, I setting I am working to explore are those areas familiar to me -- little bastions of civilization out on the fringes of society, peopled by folks who want to be left alone, whether they are in Alaska or any of the rugged parts in the NE corner of my state. I love that stuff.