Thursday, 27 October 2011

Hometowns and Settings

Does your hometown influence your writing?

The ever-so-adorable Theresa Milstein is with me today with a guest post to promote Fangtales.  Her short story 'Allured' is included in this YA anthology.  Theresa spent time thinking about setting when writing her piece, so she thought she'd share her perspective on how our hometowns shape us and frame our writing.

Here's Theresa:

“It’s a suburb of New York City where moms drive oversize silver trucks to Starbucks and most kids play soccer whether they want to or not.  It’s the kind of place where kids are trained from birth to compete.  In everything.  School, sports, friendship, clothes. . .you know, everything.”
- D.J. MacHale, Morpheus Road: The Light

My blogging buddy, Jessica Bell wrote a recent post asking the question:

What's the first wonderful aspect of your hometown that comes to mind when you think about it? And does it make you feel nostalgic?

Just 1 aspect and 1 hometown?!  
How about 10 aspects and 2 hometowns?

Until age 9, I lived in New York City.  This is my childhood list:
Soot snow mountains
Fire hydrant sprinklers – watching on
X-rated movie theatre ‘round the corner
Giant Catholic Church, opposite direction
Friends and neighbors from everywhere in the world
Walking everywhere and noisy elevated subway
Dark school with caged stairways and paper towel ceilings
Parks with cement cause scraped knees
Crowded and noisy, horns and double-parked cars
Independence with caution

For the rest of my childhood, I lived on Long Island.  If I hadn’t lived in NYC first, this list might be different. If I write it from my teen years, it would also be different.  This is my childhood list:

Sameness of big houses and people
Mowing lawns and lawn pride
Mandatory soccer
Cars drive everywhere
Bicycling through lazy summers
Playing video games at the bowling alley
Backyards with sprinklers 
Basements with toys
Inhaling greenery from flower and vegetable gardens
Designer jeans

Though these places are only an hour drive apart, the contrast is great.  Being a city kid and suburban kid are like two different beasts inside me.  My childhood experiences help me write city and suburban characters.

Kimberley Griffiths Little writes about life on the bayou in The Healing Spell and her soon-to-be-released Circle of Secrets.  I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what that life is like there if I hadn’t been introduced to that world by her:

“I sit in the prow of the motorboat, worms jiggling my gut the whole way, fat and sassy on all that cake I just ate.

When we get to the swamp house, I watch my daddy tie the rope around the dock piling, get my suitcases out, and set them on the scraggly lawn.  Wind moans through the giant cypress trees surrounding the house, making the Spanish moss float in the air like mermaid’s hair.”

- Kimberley Griffiths Little, Circle of Secrets

Recently, I read Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord in one sitting.  Because she spent time on an island in Maine, she could bring that tiny world realistically to me, as I sat in on the Charles River in Cambridge, overlooking the Boston skyline.

I’ve mentioned before that I can make up anything in the world in my books, but I like my setting to be based on a place that I know.  I must know the physical ground to ground my book, no matter what other fantastical elements exist.  The places I’ve lived have had a profound impact on me as a person and as a writer. And knowing a place helps me bring authenticity to my pieces.  But I need to take it further like other authors who know their settings enough to make them  character-like – Carl Hiaasen and Kate DiCamillo, for example.

Where we’ve lived is so much of who we are.

In November, I’m going to post an interview with Jessica Bell about her upcoming book, String Bridge.  She explains how living in Australia and Greece has influenced her writing.

Can you list aspects of your hometown?
How did where you grew up influence your writing?
Which books or authors do wonders with setting?
Links you might want to use:

My blog:

Barnes and Noble:


Michael Offutt said...

I am convinced that Theresa in fact, knows everyone. This book has been on so many blogs. She is amazing.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great post!

I can think of some aspects of my hometown--both the one we lived in for over eight years, and where we're living now. I'm not sure it influences my writing to a huge extent, though, since my main genres are Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Theresa Milstein said...

Michael and The Golden Eagle, thank you!

Len, thank you for hosting me on your blog. I appreciate our friendship and critique partnership.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I like to include places I've lived in my stories, but like reading stories that include towns I know too.
Wagging Tales

Slamdunk said...

Interesting post.

I can see why authors prefer to have the setting in an area where they feel comfortable--there is so much research involved in a book that having a setting security blanket is comforting. It sure makes life easier.

Lynda R Young said...

Wonderful post. Like Golden, I'm not sure where I lived influenced my writing, and that's also because I write fantasy and science fiction. I do know my travels, however, have influenced my writing. It's the places and experiences that I've fallen in love with. I find my hometown too 'normal' and 'everyday' to get excited over enough to write about.

Glynis said...

I was recently contacted by my home-town blog. They wanted to use my home-town poem. It started me off thinking about my time there. We visited it while in the UK. Nothing has changed. So glad I left to find there are other things outside its walls!

Loved the interview and Theresa's contrasts.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Len and Theresa .. what an interesting post .. so many influences in my life .. home, holidays with grandparents - different parts of the UK .. and so it goes on ... Good luck with Fang Tales .. Interesting to know the difference between NYC and Long Island ..

I draw on places when I write my posts .. but I think I'm letting my creativity out .. short bursts!

Cheers and enjoy your weekends .. Hilary

Old Kitty said...

Theresa is so super amazing and wonderful and I wish her all the best with Fangtales! Hoorah!

Love the Q&A - especially the differences and similarities between where Theresa was and is now.

Take care

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Hi Len and Theresa - what a great post. I agree with Theresa that it's easiest to write setting convincingly if you've actually lived there. I also grew up in NYC, so your descriptions made me feel right at home :)

LR said...

Yes I agree. It's all about authenticity. Moving beyond the cliches and the typical. ;)

Angela Felsted said...

Did you love how books can take you into a different world?

Julie Dao said...

I love this post! There's no better inspiration than remembering where you have lived and where you come from. The best part is you get to reminisce while writing :) This anthology looks terrific!

Janet Johnson said...

I like using settings I know. But I think that a hometown influences one in so many ways, not just in setting. Fascinating subject, really.

E.R. King said...

Interesting post. The settings chosen are diverse. Great description, Theresa. Where you live sounds like Seattle, except you would have to add that there's a Starbucks on every street corner. : )

Jules said...

I think the better question is, "At what point do we take note of this fact?" Great insight T. Thanks for hosting Len. :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Deniz Bevan said...

A great question and answer! It's fun seeing what influences other authors have absorbed. I'd definitely not mind being an NYC kid; reminds me of EL Konigsburg and Judy Blume tales.

J.L. Campbell said...

I totally understand grounding your book by setting it in a familiar place.

Ever since I found out that people like to read about Jamaica, I've made her a character in my novels. :)

Thanks Len and Theresa. Interesting post!

Michelle Fayard said...

Oh, this is definitely a true observation. I find the contrast between having been born in Chicago and spent the first half of my childhood there to moving to the South plays a major theme in my work. What an excellent and thought-provoking post; thank you, Theresa and Len.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I love the idea of making a list about my hometown, especially because I am all about lists. What a great writing prompt! Even though I did not grow up in Chicago, I think of it as my hometown now because I have been here for a long time now; it feels like home to me in a different way than the hometown where I was raised does.
I think that Junot Diaz does a great job of incorporating setting into his stories, especially in his book Drown. In those short stories it's like the setting contributes to the story almost as much as the characters do.

Brigid said...

Interesting post.
I live in suburbia and grew up in Dublin so I find place a very important part of my writing.

Anonymous said...

Settings are important. I do not use anything from my hometown. But I do use real establishments in Orange County and the Boston area where my story takes place.

The restaurants, bars, Starbucks, and colleges are well researched so the reader from these areas will recognize and relate to them.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I absolutely agree that where we’ve lived becomes a part of who we are. And where I've lived is right there in my books and manuscripts. The names of places and some characteristics may be different for the sake of story, but many of the details come from experiences.

Shelley Sly said...

This was a great read! Thank you, Theresa and Len!

I agree that I must be familiar with a setting (in a sense... even if I'm using it loosely to create a fictional setting) in order to write well. I've also lived in several places -- 3 towns in my childhood, 6 towns overall -- and each place has its own character.

Robyn Campbell said...

Hey Len! Hey Theresa! Yep. I'm a couple days late and a few bucks short. *sniff*

Love this post. I'd say that growing up in the Keys had meant a lot to my writing. And living in the mountains of NC after marriage has too. My middle grade novel is set in The Blue Ridge mountains. I have a picture book about living in the keys and a MG novel too.

Excellent Theresa. I heart you. You too Len! *waving*

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I've lived in a number of places and countries. Some places have been small, and others are cities of million plus people. Both I draw on for my fiction.

Great post, Theresa!

Jemi Fraser said...

Nice to meet you Len! :)

I've lived in a small city my whole life and it's a very different feel from a big city or a small town. One odd thing we do is identify where things are by what used to be there ... "you know, where Canadian Tire used to be". :)

Theresa Milstein said...

Thanks for everyone who shared where they grew up and their perspective on settings. Len has a great blog, so I'm glad a few of you have now discovered it. Have a wonderful weekend!

Len Lambert said...

Thank you everybody for coming over! Thank you, Theresa for this wonderful guest post and for introducing new blog friends to me :)

Missed Periods said...

There's a novel I've been working on for the past million years, and growing up in the suburbs definitely plays a part in it.

Talli Roland said...

A big congrats to Theresa! :) I haven't set any novels in my hometown, I think because I feel claustrophobic as soon as I think of it!

Nas Dean said...

Congratulatiosn to Theresa! Interesting and a wonderful post. Thanks so much!

Margo Berendsen said...

I loved your city description esp, probably because its so foreign to me "paper toweled ceilings". I grew up in Buffalo NY, still a somewhat big city, but my impressions were so different!

When I write contemporary, I have to write from experience - the four places I've lived. But when I write fantasy, I borrow from place I'd like to go. I do tons of research, but I still worry if I'm really "capturing" it as genuinely as you can when you've actually lived in a place, instead of just visited it/read about it.

Nicki Elson said...

It's cool that Theresa actually lived the contrast. I love to get to know settings I'm not familiar with through people who know what they're talking about - traveling vicariously.

Man, MacHale sure nailed the suburbs.