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….
– 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?)