Since last October, I have completed half a dozen short stories and have begun a novel. When I throw in all the blogging I’ve done as well, that’s a lot of words for a busy day-jobber – specially one who prior to this year hadn’t completed jack squat in half a decade.
I realized the other day that I hadn’t taken stock of my projects in a while, so I spent some time doing just that. As I reviewed them, I noticed a trend – I use the same two settings for almost every piece I write.
1. The Beach Town
Some of my favorite memories have been made during off-season visits to the shore. The above pic was taken during a spring break trip with a group of girlfriends when I was in my early twenties. It was March, and the first time I’d ever seen snow flurries on the ocean. I still think about that view when I need to “go to a happy place.”
I love writing stories that are set in beach towns. My resort towns are always old-school. There are boardwalks and rickety old inns jutting up between the newfangled hotels. There are bookstores, arcades, ferris wheels, t-shirt shops, and eateries out the ying-yang. Most of them are closed, because my tales tend to take place among the locals during the off-season.
My beach towns are never in tropical areas, so the sea is slate-grey this time of year and the wind on the beach bites my characters’ cheeks. But the seagulls still swoop and the air smells of saltwater and the few brave boardwalk fried food havens that risk doing business once the tourists have all gone home.
Although most are shut down until the sun heats up the beach again, there’s always one bar on the boardwalk that stays open. It is, of course, where all my locals gather. In the Novel-in-Progress, it is where my two main characters come together.
2. The Little Mountain Town
The off-season beach is far and away my favorite place to go when I write. But a close second is the off-the-beaten-track mountain town. The summers are warm but gentle, the autumns a blaze of glory, and the winters harsh. The characters are a mishmosh of those who have lived there forever and the inevitable transplant, who is usually the main focus of the story.
The town centers are small but cozy. Every place my characters need to go is right there in one pleasant walk along cobbled sidewalks. The buildings are big and old, and during holidays like Halloween or Christmas, everyone decorates their storefronts and porches to the hilt. The towns are bustling sometimes, but only in that “handful of regulars” kind of way. They are nestled in valleys surrounded by wooded mountains and there’s always a stream or river close by. After all, the children need to play and the tobacco-chewing mountain men need a fishing hole.
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where we go as often as we can for the fall Apple Butter festival (pictured here), is a prime example of the kind of town I mean. A place where lifers and artists, writers and musicians mingle with the redneckiest of the rednecks, and where the same person often fits all of the above stereotypes.
On the surface, these towns are peaceful and comforting, humming along to a rhythm that is slower and more even than a fast-paced urban life. But they are also full of superstition and secrets. There are sharp rusty edges beneath the fluffy cloud surfaces, and those edges cut deep.
These are the places where almost all my fiction happens. The names may change, but the surroundings are basically the same. Why is that?
They say you should write what you know, and yes, I have been to these places. My beach towns are reminiscent of nearby Ocean City MD and Rehobeth Beach DE, where I have spent many happy summer vacations and off-season visits. My mountain hideaways are much like the towns I’d visit with my West Virginian relatives when I summered with them as a child, and also like the little enclaves surrounding my parent’s cabin in PA now. So yes, I do know them.
But what I know even better is the hustle and bustle of city life, and the manicured chaos of suburbia. These are the places where I have done most of my growing and living, my aging and working. Yet they rarely make it into my tales. The one exception to that is stories that take place in a city corner bar eerily akin to my father’s pub.
I will write about city or suburban life if the tale in question is pre-destined to be very short – in the 2-5,000 word range. In fact, “A Wingding and a Prayer,” my piece in the July issue of eFiction, is set primarily on a busy city bus. Of course, it also features the aforementioned corner bar. But if the story in my head is designed to be a longer tale, I always take it to the beach or the mountains.
We can never be sure why our writer’s minds take us where they do, but in this case I have a pretty good idea.
To write a story well, we must build the setting in our mind and live in it for a time. We have to see it, hear it and smell it. We walk around in it using our characters’ feet, and see it through their eyes. When writing a longer piece, we do this for long stretches of time.
I see manicured lawns and traffic and strip malls every day. I smell exhaust and the neighbor’s garbarge on a hot summer trash day. I hear the bleating of horns and the chatter of worker-bees in convenience store lines. Sometimes there are fascinating characters there, but the daily routine is also grinding and exhausting. More often than not, I am sick of it.
So when I write, I like to take myself away. If I’m going to be there for a while, I want the surroundings to be both different and pleasant. I want them to hold the beauty of nature but also house the quirkiness of humanity. What better places for that than isolated mountain villages or off-season beach resorts? These are the natural homes to fortunetellers and mountain healers and people running from messes they’ve left behind.
But they are also beautiful, places you don’t mind getting up before dawn to visit if that’s when you must write. I am never excited to crawl out of bed and hit the lemming-line that is off-to-work traffic. But I was always thrilled to wake up before the sun and pile in the car with my family to head to the beach or the mountains.
Where does your fiction take you? Do you the travel the world, or write about your own backyard? Do you seek familiar comforts or stretch your wings? Do you build worlds that don’t exist or expound on places nearby? Why do you choose to have your tales take place where they do? And if you don’t write, is there a particular setting you most like to visit when you read?