One of the things that you hear ad nauseum in Hollywood story meetings is: “And I think Seattle (Rome, San Francisco, New York, L.A., Akron) should be a character in this movie!”
Not that it’s a bad note (although it’s funny how you can predict who will say it, and how you, the writer, must always pretend that it’s the most brilliant and startling idea you’ve ever heard). It’s just that to me this is so obvious I don’t know why anyone would ever have to bring it up. It’s like saying your story needs a plot.
Of course the location is a character.
This is excruciatingly crucial when, like I do, you write on the supernatural side, and it must seem that the very land and/or city, and/or house (or in my current WIP, boat), and elements are conspiring against the human characters. There are vast forces at work, and they have their own intelligence.
But it’s not just in my genre. I think one of the key promises of a novel, any novel, any genre, is that it takes you, the reader, away from wherever you are. That’s one of the main reasons we read, isn’t it? And even when you, the writer, are writing the darkest of dark stories – set in a prison, or in the middle of war, or an impoverished country, or a supernatural dystopia, your reader, for whatever twisted reason, is picking up that book to BE THERE. And it is one of your non-negotiable jobs as an author, or filmmaker, to take them there – completely out of their own body, their own house, their own city, their own reality, and into yours.
“Yours” being the operative word, here, because it’s not enough to say that the story is set in Boston and leave it at that. It has to be your Boston, or your character’s Boston.
“What is it about Boston for you?” a friend asked me recently, as I just finished another book set there.
It’s true, Boston is one of MY cities. Along with London, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Death Valley. Well, that’s not a city. But you know.
My friend really asked the key question, the question every writer should always ask her or himself about the location of his or her story: “What is it about Boston (or whatever) for you?”
Boston is one of those places that I fell in love with the instant I landed in it. It is so twisted, Boston – literally and figuratively… the streets were built along meandering cow paths. They make no sense at all. You round a corner and you could be anywhere. Or anytime.
And then all of that history – the cradle of the Revolution! – and intellect, and literature, and music, and art, and cathedrals, and witches.
Aha. That’s a lot of my personal take about Boston, right there.
For someone like me, obsessed as I am with the devil, Boston is a gold mine. I can write stories about the devil and witches walking around in that city, with the utmost confidence and realism, because they have, and they do.
Here’s another example. Synchronistically, this post turns out to be a great follow up to J.T.’s delicious account of her trip to Napa. Napa is (in spades!) a region with character. It reminds me of the overwhelming influence of the vineyards and wine-tasting imagery that Alexander Payne portrayed to perfection about Central California’s wine country, Sideways. For native Californians, Payne hit every iconic location he could cram into that story; we have all done all of those things, repeatedly (the only thing he left out was the Madonna Inn, which is a whole movie in itself.) The themes of alcoholism and creative inspiration and California excess are pillars of the movie, and the wedding and road trip themes are also completely in line with the mythology of wine country (if I had a dollar for every vineyard wedding I’ve attended… every road trip I’ve taken through Central California… ). And it’s no accident that the characters are a (failed) writer and a (failed) actor – that is mythically Californian. Payne captured the unmistakable character of that region, as well as making it his own. If you want to know what it’s like to live in California, watch that movie.
My new thriller, The Unseen (out this month, for all of you who have been waiting with bated breath) has North Carolina as its character location, and oh, boy, is it a character. Now, I could not have begun to do that story justice from the point of view of a native Southerner – because in case you haven’t noticed, they’re all crazy. 😉
But I could tell it from the point of view of a fish out of water, a Californian transplanted to the South, and experiencing the whole state for the first time. And that point of view I think achieves a quality of isolation and alienation that’s very useful in a supernatural thriller.
Doing my research and being true to the reality of the place was, for me, key. The story is based on real-life experiments done in the Rhine parapsychology lab on the Duke University campus, and I could not have asked for a more Gothic and spooky and atmospheric college to play with. I felt like I was tripping, walking around that school for the first time, it’s that perfect for the book.
The overwhelming forests of North Carolina (I’ve never seen so many trees in my life) were another great atmospheric element. You can hide virtually anything in those damn trees. For a child of the Southern California desert it’s terrifying not to be able to see vistas, and those endless forests are the labyrinth (with all of its mystical implications) that is so much a part of my personal thematic imagery.
Since the story is about a poltergeist house, I had to create a poltergeist house that was absolutely a character in its own right. One that I could know the shape of like I know the lines in my hand – every room and hall and stairway and imprint.
And because writing is magic, I found the absolute perfect haunted mansion: the Weymouth Center, and was actually able to live there for a whole week.
It’s a real haunted house with an awesome backstory; it was one of the “Yankee Playtime Plantations”, the Southern manors that were bought up after the war by newly moneyed Northerners and turned into hunting lodges and sex retreats. I mean, vacation houses. This one was also a hangout for literary lions such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson, and “editor of genius” Max Perkins.
And oh, you bet that vibe permeates the manor and grounds. The house is not just creatively inspiring in the day and completely terrifying at night… it’s also a total turn-on. My haunting turned much more erotic than I was expecting, because that’s what was actually there in the mansion. Really. It has nothing to do with me.
We are so lucky that as authors our job includes traveling to and
experiencing as many different places as we can get to. Free research! We are even more lucky that so many of the conferences and conventions we attend (Left Coast Crime, Bouchercon, ALA, PLA, World Horror Con, World Fantasy Con, Romantic Times, Romance Writers of America National) “force” us to travel to different cities every year, thus providing whole universes of research with the price of admission. If you’ll take a look, every single one of those cons goes all out to provide field trips specific to the city and area, as well as seminars and field trips by, for example: law enforcement officials who speak about the particular issues they deal with on their turf and famous criminals and crimes of the region; ghost walks through the cities; and tours of the host city’s most interesting features (like the underground street in Seattle at a recent LCC). No matter how overbooked I am at a conference, I never miss the city tours and local law enforcement tracks.
It’s a beautiful system. We can promote our books, meet with our agents and editors, and do all our location research in one weekend.
Because you never know when you’re going to need the character of Denver. Or Phoenix. Or Napa. Or Madison. Or Indianapolis. Or New Orleans. Or the Big Island. Or….
So tell me, ‘Rati writers and readers. What are your favorite cities, or regions? What books and authors portray location as character particularly well? What do you authors do to create the character in your location? Or what convention have you been to that’s given you the best character introduction to a city you’ve ever had?