by Alexandra Sokoloff

So because of the ongoing maelstrom of my life I’m now back in Southern California.   Which doesn’t exactly suck – we’re suffering through temps in the 80’s while the rest of the country is buried in snow and dead birds.   And dead fish.   And – well, if I say anything else, that would be veering into politics, but it all sounds pretty much like the Apocalypse, when you start adding it up.

But here in So Cal, we’ve got palm trees swaying in the Santa Anas, all that.   Sunsets that define the film term “Magic hour”.   Grapefruit and oranges and lemons and limes right there on the trees, for free, as God intended.   I’m actually working on an impressive sunburn and I’m going to have to break down and get a pedicure if this weather keeps up.

That’s LA, baby.

Things I was missing desperately about So Cal without sometimes even knowing it:

– Dallas Raines.    They just don’t have weathermen like that… um… anywhere.  Let’s hear it for the man.

– The palm trees.   Do you know that the palm trees START at the border between Arizona and California?   Like, did they draw the state line because of the palm trees?   Or did California plant the palm trees to distinguish itself from Arizona?  Whichever came first, it gives me great joy in my heart to see those palm trees, right past those rockin’ Arizona rock formations.  

– What I especially like is the view of palm trees against towering snow-capped mountains.   And no, Dusty, there are NO REAL MOUNTAINS IN NORTH CAROLINA.   You come out here and look at the view I’ve got going and you’ll see what I mean.

– I love the way men in California smile at you when they look at you.   In the South, African American men smile for sure, it’s lovely, I feel like they actually see me, but white men look you over and never crack a smile.   I hate that.

– I’m sorry, it’s probably sexist, but I am so much more comfortable saying  “you guys” as a plural than “you all”  or “y’all”  (although I will miss “all y’all” and especially “all y’all ladies”.   Because the more specific language is, the more I like it.) 

– People know how to drive, here.   I know everyone talks about road rage in LA, but for the most part, people here are UNBELIEVABLY patient for what they have to go through.  And people are conscious enough to move the traffic along.  They know how to make the most of left turns – for example, four cars should easily turn at most intersections, if people are paying attention.  People let you into lanes when there’s a closure.   They for sure don’t stupidly slow down on a right turn that a kindergartener could make…

Okay, maybe I’m heating up a little, but the civilized flow of traffic is YOUR responsibility, people….

Um, anyway…

– I love the portion control in California.   It is so much easier to eat reasonably.   I especially love that salt is used only in emergencies.

– Gas and real estate may be outrageous, but dance classes are cheaper here. Manicures are cheaper.  Car washes are cheaper.  Produce is cheaper and much better.

– And I just have to say the cats have been unbelievably okay about the big move – I’ve schlepped them across the country 3 times in the last year and a half and they seem to have gotten used to it.   Of course temps in the 80s in January smooth a lot of ruffled fur.   But for those transporting cats by car,  I highly recommend the large soft wall pet crates – the big ones are big enough for a cat bed and a small litter box – which makes all the difference.

All right, that’s the small stuff, but it adds up.

What does all this have to do with writing, you may be asking?   Well, interestingly, I’m back full time in California just as I’m writing a novel set mostly in California.  Which is actually my second, I just haven’t quite finished the last one yet. 

I guess I’m coming home in more ways than one.

The book I just almost finished is set in California, but just one town.   This new one is California, all over the map.  Which I have some real experience with.

So my real topic, three-quarters of the way into my post, is – Why is it so hard to write about the place you know best?

Ever since my first book came out I’ve been getting the question:  “Why don’t you set something in California?”   It started to mystify me, too.  After all, most of the screenplays I’ve written have been set in California.  It’s not like I don’t DO California.

It has to do with tone, I think.

I was able to do my usual dark thing in a California setting in my last novel, no problem.  Maybe because it has an intensely limited location.   Or maybe it was easier to do because I wasn’t actually IN California when I was writing it.

But this one…

Oh, man, is it hard to do a dark story with a California native detective.

You can do it if you put them in the middle of LA, or even (but less so) in San Francisco.   LA has a particular blend of darkness, sordidness, narcissism, and overwhelming free-floating anxiety that is perfect for crime fiction.   But outside of LA, California just has a hard time looking dark.

And that’s just ridiculous, really, when you have any idea of what’s happening along the border, for example.    Horrible, evil things happen in this state just as often or more as they do anywhere else.

But then… there are those frigging palm trees. 

I’m excited to be writing about places I don’t actually have to go research.  (Well,  okay, there is some beach research I’m going to have to do, just to be entirely accurate, you understand.).  It’s a wonderful thing to actually know the distances between places, and the history, and how people in other towns perceive a town.   I love knowing how all the places I’m writing about look and feel.   And smell.   I love knowing what kind of trees a character would be looking at out the window and what kind of wildlife I can work into the story.   But maybe knowing too much about a place makes it harder to select out the things that create a specific mood and sensation.

Or maybe it’s a particular challenge of this story because it’s on the road – there is no ONE specific place, and yet I have to create a sense of a unified arena.

But I’m beginning to think I had to have distance from California, to live outside of it, to develop an omniscient point of view about it, before I could truly start to write about it.   I know my state from the inside, but I had to experience it from the outside.

It feels like a whole new chapter.  Maybe a whole new book.  And it’s a struggle, not a very comfortable one, but I think I might just be able to say something different and true about this state.

So how about you guys?  Y’all?  All y’all ladies and gentlemen?    Those who write, do you write about your home town, home state?   Or do you prefer exploring other, stranger locations?   As readers, do you especially enjoy reading about your home town or state?   Are you as demanding as I am about locations having to be thematically accurate?

(And okay, how’s the weather out there?)


43 thoughts on “Californication

  1. Chris Hamilton

    Vin Scully. LA has Vin Scully, too. If it had nothing else of value, that would be enough.

    You could use the palm trees as a counterpoint to the darkness, a novel with all sun and light, counterbalance with the darkness inside the people and the dark things they do with each other.

    And I'm kind of partial to all y'all, which Eddie Murphy used in the 48 Hours bar scene. I think.

  2. Terry Odell

    I grew up in Los Angeles. Moved to Florida after marriage (they have palm trees there too). I love reading about places I know. We moved to Colorado last spring. No palm trees here, but the aspens are gorgeous as they move through the seasons.

    (And, just in case anyone's looking for some pictures of those palm trees with the snow-capped mountains, my mom sent a few for my weekly Friday Field Trip. She took them in Palm Springs. — check my blog, Terry's Place, .)

  3. TerriMolina

    I'm from southeastTexas but did my share of moving around after graduating high school. I lived in Souther Illinois, Florida, New York, Alaska….but I always set my stories in Texas because it's the setting I know.

    I live in Arizona now (and the weather is beautiful!!!) but I still set my novels in Texas, mainly the Rio Grande Valley area because that's who my character's are. If I have to do any specific research about the area I just contact one of the many aunts, uncles or cousins who live there. One of the many benefits to having a large family. =)

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Chris, I'll take your word for it on Scully.

    I know I was going off a little on the palm trees, but it may be the desert that I love most about California. And there is a setting for stark battles between good and evil, if you ask me.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Terri – Arizona is just gorgeous! Texas – well, it's overwhelming to me. I don't think I'd do well there.

    I like your idea of making your relatives do your research for you!

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post, Alex, and a topic that is true to my heart on so many levels. Having written dark detective novels that take place in L.A. and San Francisco, I agree that the settings help drive the tone of the books. Similarly, I think it would be more difficult to "find the darkness" if I had to write a crime novel set in, say, Fresno or Bakersfield. But then I think of the movie Fargo and I realize you can do anything anywhere. I'm writing my third novel now and it's set in Europe and I'm having a hard time NOT concentrating on describing every structure on every city block, because it's all new to me and I want to get it right. As I go back to do edits I find myself cutting all that crap out, because, who needs it? It's not essential to the story. I wouldn't be writing it if I were writing about L.A. or San Francisco, so there's no reason to force it in now.
    I'm also toying with a story for my fourth novel and I'm thinking about having a detective from a very small California police department end up getting pulled into a bigger crime that is centered in L.A. He'll end up being the smartest guy in the room, although the L.A. cops think he's got nothing to say. So, I'll have the best of both worlds, I think.
    I'm glad you're back in L.A., dear. Just in time to go to see the final days of the Mystery Bookstore. Very sad. You better attend the party on the 31st. I'm coming with the wife and kids. And we've got to do a night in Hermosa Beach.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    I like to go where the story takes me, whether it's somewhere I know well, or somewhere I've only been once. But it is hard to look at somewhere familiar and pick out those aspects of it that struck you hardest the first time you set eyes on the place.

    And palm trees have always looked kind of spooky to me. We have very few here, except on the south coast, where the locals plant them just to taunt us northerners about the Gulf Stream. They wouldn't stand a chance up in Cumbria at the moment – blown flat in a heartbeat.

    Glad you and the cats are waming your bones in LA, though – hope we can meet up when I'm over there in March.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, I have the same problem with describing structures. My editor's first note to me is always: "Get rid of these BUILDINGS."

    I am thrilled to be exploring some lesser-known California towns – SLO, Pismo Beach, Atascadero (which is famous for what, you natives?)

    As I was writing this blog I was realizing it's not the small-townness that is being hard to write darkly – it's the road trip aspect. Don't know how to deal with that exactly, but naming the problem is the first step.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, fabulous, Z, it would be great to see you in March!

    Yeah, palm trees can truly be spooky at night, the rattle of the fronds (also knowing how much certain rodents love to hang out in those fronds…)

    I think I need to do a desert book.

  10. Alafair Burke

    Writing from freezing, black-slush-covered NYC, I'm jealous of your sunshine and palm trees. I have always felt weird saying "you guys" but desperately want an English language version of second person plural, like ustedes en Espanol, so somehow I inherited a penchant for "y'all" from my father's side of the family. I'm pretty sure that makes me the only Asian woman in New York, if not America, who runs around saying y'all and even all y'all. Maybe I'll try on "all y'all ladies" for size. I like it.

  11. Lance C.

    Atascadero = state mental hospital. Also a decent halfway stop between San Francisco and L.A on the 101.

    Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett showed it's possible to do pretty decent noir in California, but you can't rely on the same props you have available in New York or Chicago. It's easier in S.F. because you have the fog and rain, as well as the crowded, vertical city. In L.A., you have to use the Balkanized neighborhoods and the overflow of the melting-pot of the world instead of tenements and dingy alleys.

    The one piece I set in Southern California was hard to write because I know the place so well, a lot of it has become invisible to me. What's important for setting the scene? Also, L.A. has become so familiar through movies and TV, how much description do you really need? I've found it easier to write about places I don't know as well, because I can bring to them the readers' eyes — the discoveries and impressions are still fresh.

  12. Sylvia

    Damn these cities for revitalizing areas 🙂 I'm sure San Francisco was much easier to use as a backdrop before they rebuilt the Embarcadero and got rid of the cesspool by the piers. Hey, there's still Richmond and Oakland! Do a reverse and have the officer/detective/agent live in happy San Fran but have to look at and work in Oakland 🙂

    As a reader, I see gritty and dark when I read – and visit – both Boston and New York City. Miami is slutty. No offense to any Miami residents or Floridians – blame it on the authors (really kidding here). I've read great books that balance the dark and bright sides of LA, Seattle, San Francisco and have yet to read a book where Detroit is a happy place to be.

    I really like books that give me a setting of a smaller city I may not know or know enough to wrinkle a brow if the author is straying to far from geographical facts – Milwaukee, Memphis and the like.

  13. Mark P

    I grew up in England (rain!), now live in Austin, Texas, (heat!) and set my books in Paris, France (beauty!). Writing for me is a chance not just to help the reader explore but also to explore a place myself, walk through the streets and investigate a place's history, eat its food. It's also a chance to relive happy vacation days, and I can only hope that such self-indulgence will be appreciated and shared by my (eventual) readers.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I feel the same way about the second person plural, Alafair, and didn't realize until I was in college that I had been using "you guys" to denote the plural all my life.

    "All y'all ladies" never fails to make me happy. I've also heard "all y'all guys." Something for everyone.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lance, right on about Atascadero, both counts. But I've been in plenty of dingy alleys in LA, myself. I find LA startling for how dirty it is compared to almost any other American city. Well, NY is up there.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, now, there are some really great places in Oakland, Sylvia!

    I love the idea of Miami as slutty. But I've barely spent any time there at all. Couldn't write it from what I know of it, it's mystifying.

  17. Gar Haywood


    First off, speaking for California in general and Los Angeles in particular, welcome home. We missed you.

    Almost everything I write takes place in my native Los Angeles because that's where I feel less prone to get something glaringly wrong. I've read too many scathing book reviews taking authors to task for writing about a locale they clearly only know from "book learning" alone. On those rare occasions I do write about places other than L.A., I get on a plane and visit them for as long as i can afford to stay, then run the finished product by all the locals I can find just to make sure I haven't written anything stupid about their home town.

    Total immersion is always the best way to learn anything foreign to one's experience, no?

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Gar – hope I'll see you at the Mystery Bookstore on the 31st.

    Yes, I'm a big fan of total immersion research. But no matter what, I know I'm going to get something wrong. It's amazing how riled up some readers can get when I mention a plant or tree that's flowering or not flowering out of season. I'm starting to feel like I need to write up a universal gardening disclaimer.

  19. HL Arledge

    I'm from Louisiana. I've lived in California eleven years. My first novel is set in Los Angeles, as are most of my short stories. Friends back home were asking me the same question: Why not a Louisiana story?

    (On the subject of "ya'll"—actually pronounced "yaw" in Louisiana—I really hate it when Hollywood screws it up. The word is frigging plural. Don't say "Ya'll expecting rain?" when you're talking to one person.)

    Now, where was I?

    Oh, yea… I'm eight weeks into Pay Dirt, a novelette I'm writing a few lines a day via Twitter (@hlarledge), and I must say the experience is liberating. I guess we have to leave home for awhile to notice the parts that resonate.

  20. billie

    Oh my gosh – have you totally moved out of NC, completely?

    Of course out of all the many details of your post today, the thing I'm seizing on is traveling with cats and the notion of the soft carriers, which weren't available when I was traveling with my two years back. The soft ones would have been great – although one cat spent most of his time lying on TOP of his carrier surveying the countryside as I drove, so I guess he'd have missed that aspect!

    WRT your new book, somehow I feel sure you'll find a way to find the darkness even in sunny California. 🙂

  21. PK the Bookeemonster

    I cannot stand books set in Montana. If I see another reference to riding horses in a contemporary setting I'll do damage. People are depicted either as hicks or quirky (how about just as people). The closest an author has gotten is Craig Larson although his crime novels are set in Wyoming, he's got the "region" correct.
    Weather, currently 18 degrees. I'm doing battle with a damn cold. And for the sake of peace in my house, I hope the Steelers win today.

  22. KDJames

    Alex, I'm pretty sure you have the ability to make any setting dark, if that's what you want. And after dissecting Chinatown in your class, I can't think of California at all anymore without imagining the menace in that movie (for me, it was stronger in the non-city scenes).

    You sound happy to be back in CA and I'm glad for that (but sorry about the maelstrom). We'll miss you here!

    PK, I'm sick with a damn cold too. Hope we both feel better soon.

  23. Allison Brennan

    I'm a fifth generation Californian. San Francisco Bay Area. I love California, but hate L.A. (sorry Alex!) There are things about L.A. I like, but I didn't like living there for three years.

    What I like . . . I totally agree with you about the drivers, Alex. I was 22 when I moved to L.A. and THAT was when I learned how to drive. Weather. Yep, 80 degrees in January is hard to beat. Mountains–sure, L.A. has some mountains — when I flew into Burbank the other week I realized I missed the Glendale-Verdugo hills. Those mountains coming into the airport are absolutely stunning on a clear day. And then the Burbank airport–it hasn't changed, God love it. Small, efficient airports are my favorite! (Except, the food sucked and there was no Starbucks.)

    Maybe I like L.A. more than I thought . . . now that I've been gone for 16 years, LOL.

    And I always say "you guys." Even when talking to "gals." I didn't realize it was a California thing!

    As far as writing, it's SOOOO much easier writing about a place I know, but it has some disadvantages, too. Like, I know it so well, so when I know I should know something, but it eludes me, I have to do hands on research. Like in one book, I couldn't remember where the exit to this parking garage was, so I had to go and check it out. If it was somewhere else, I'd just have made it up, but because I was writing about a parking garage that actually exists, I had to make sure I had the pedestrian exit on the right street :/

    Right now, I'm writing about a place I've never been, but my husband has. I've done that with my two books set in Montana, where I picked his brain. I also had contacts there to help. Now, it's St. Lawrence County. I'm making up a town (because there's some shenanigans going on in the town) but it COULD exist in terms of size, location, industry, etc. So the general feeling is accurate (I hope) while the town itself is fictional.

    I wrote a dark book set in L.A. But it was the demon lust, which was appropriate . . . 😉

    Welcome home Alex!

  24. Reine

    Ah, Alex… Dallas Raines. Caught him on the west coast satellite feed the other day. Amazed to see he was still there. Who is the weatherman who used to wear the red framed glasses? So Cal has all the best.

    We have palm trees in Arizona. They just don't last long. You can see them all along the highway between here and Phoenix, funny looking rows of leafless trunks surrounding former trailer parks.

    I love to read about places I've lived and really do love real detail. It's not enough for me to read a novel that doesn't have it wrong. I want enough detail to reflect the place as it is, or was. If I've never been there, it doesn't seem like a big thing. I don't like endless paragraphs of detail, though. I mostly want the story in the setting. Tell me the story.

  25. Louise Ure

    Hi Alex,

    I, too, have to be at arm's length from a place before I can see it clearly. I never could have written about Arizona while I lived there. Welcome home.

  26. Jake Nantz

    Well Alex, I hate that you didn't like it down here in NC, but I think it's pretty darn close to Heaven on Earth. Love Vin Scully and the Dodgers, and LA's nice to visit, but I'll stick with home. Wuz nice havin' y'all here fer a time, tho…

  27. Gayle Carline

    I live just south of you, Alex, in Orange County. Talk about a No Noir Zone, although Dean Koontz makes the southern part of the county plenty creepy. I put my mystery (Freezer Burn) in my hometown of Placentia, for a number of reasons. First, they say to write what you know and having never murdered anyone, I figured at least in Placentia I know the setting. Second, I thought it would be kind of funny that Placentia would be the hotbed of murder and mayhem – I mean, really? "The Pleasant Place?" Third, I like my little community. What's wrong with a little advertising?

    Are you truly going to be at the Southern California Writer's Conference in San Diego this year?

  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    HL, it even drives me crazy to hear y'all used for the singular – it must slay you!

    Billie, I know better than to say "totally" or "for good" about anything I do these days.

    The soft cat crates were amazing. And my smaller cat is light enough that she could lie on top of it – they're pretty study.

  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry you two are sick. K – that sucks. I am happy to be back. But I'm not a huge fan of LA, Allison, I thought everyone knew that by now! It's part of who I am but oh man, do I prefer No Cal.

  30. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Reine, you're right – the place has to come out in the story. It's a theme thing too, for me. How is the place working thematically?

    Hah, Gayle – I think there's plenty of dark down there behind the Orange Curtain. I am scheduled for San Diego, yes – hope to see you there.

  31. JT Ellison

    Nashville – 35 – light wintry mix coming tomorrow. We still have snow from the last round. It's AWESOME. I grew up in Colorado and winter without snow is excruciating for me. I feel so much more at peace with snow on the ground. Crazy, huh?

    I don't know if I'll ever write a book set there, because it feels like something that just belongs to me, the real me, the squeaky little girl me. But who knows. Never say never.

    Everyone wants me to do a DC book, but man, it's been done. So writing about Nashville is a sheer joy, because I can share the Nashville I see.

    Glad you're settled in safe!

  32. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, I hope you'll write that Washington book. It hasn't been done by YOU!

    Light wintry mix. Yeah, it's pretty, but I have all the windows open and am wearing shorts and a tank top right now and that is just fine with me.

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