DESCRIBING LOCATIONS – HOW PERSONAL?
In a past article series, Is Your Place Setting Real?, I talked about the ins and outs of describing locations, both public and private. I got to thinking about my own city Las Vegas, a very public place and how writers like to paint it. It’s very often given a less-than-flattering description from the city of broken dreams to an artificial paradise to even worse. For someone that chose to live here, I could take offense if I were thin-skinned. As a writer, I could take the easy way out and use every one of those-tired-but-true clichés if my story used Las Vegas. There’s more to this place than that. As far as I can remember, I wrote Las Vegas Gold and described it as nothing more than a place setting, without any clichés at all.
It made me think of Los Angeles, “Ellay,” “Down Below” as it’s known to many people who have grown up in and around Southern Calee’fornia. It’s been called everything in the book (now there’s a cliché), and then some as well. Much of these descriptions are unflattering, especially by authors who have never lived there. Someone from Ellay, might in turn describe New York (or as I like to call it, New Yawk) in the same negative light.
Say your story takes place in Kansas City, Missouri (Mizurr-uh). Have you ever been there? Are you from there? If so, what were your honest impressions? Are you really going to describe the town that way? I’m not talking about as a place setting, I’m talking about the overall impressions of the city. Is it Hicksville, Cowtown, Nowhere Town? Did you hate the place? Love it? Get no impression at all because it was just a stop on the freeway passing through?
Now, say you’ve never been there. Are you going to research Kansas City and use the impressions of other people and derive your description from that?
As a writer, one thing to think about is your audience. I sometimes wonder if sticking with the clichéd descriptions is cheating them. In your haste to maybe use Kansas City (sorry I’m picking on your random city if you’re from there) because it’s a minor location in the story, you do a quick Internet search and come up with a few impressions from the web. They happen to be clichés though you haven’t delved far enough into the city’s to know that. You use them, forever contributing to those clichés. Someone from Kansas City reads your book and may either agree or see your ignorance. Will they hate you for it? Probably not, but it might forever cement that ignorance in their mind. I guess it’s no worse than getting any other real facts wrong, but it’s easy to miss such a simple thing as a generalized description of a city or town, especially one you may or may not have been to.
It’s hard for me to hold all the clichés people say about Las Vegas against authors when most of them have barely been here for a few days at best and have never ventured off the strip. Anyone might get the impression of this town by the glitz and glamour of the casinos and the legacy of the mob and even the urban sprawl that came from it all. The movies, TV and lots of authors have already cemented that into our culture. However, I live amid that urban sprawl and though this place certainly lives up to many of the clichés, there’s still a town here where real people live, just like anywhere else.
As an author, when I describe someone else’s home town, I tend to be careful with the clichés. If I use one, I like to temper it with something positive so anyone reading it will have something good to come away with. The reader may actually hate their town, but I won’t make that call.
Okay, what if it’s the character that hates the town? It’s perfectly okay to have a character hate a place, but I still will have something positive in the narration, despite what the character is saying, to counteract the character’s opinion.
In both my icky bugs, The Greenhouse and The Factory, the town settings are not always shown in a positive light. In fact, in The Greenhouse, the town, a real place setting, is practically destroyed. However, the citizens prevail and the place survives. Redemption of sorts.
There are plenty of places in America I have no desire to ever return to again. However, I have no plans to write them as the pits of Hell in my next book. People live there. It’s their home. I may use it in a negative setting but I will also temper it with something positive. They may be one of my readers someday.
Every city or town has a dark underbelly but it’s the regular people that make these locations their great place to live.
What about you? How do you handle describing locations?