Knowing Your Location

by | Apr 25, 2007 | Approaches to Writing

Some time ago I noted how cute it would have been to have set The Great American Desert in the part of Illinois known as Little Egypt, but that I wasn’t so foolish to write about a place I don’t know.  In a local color novel, which Desert certainly is to some extent, using an unfamiliar setting would most definitely be a disaster.  ‘Place’ is about place but it is even more about people.  Vladimir Nabokov takes himself to task for an early short story which he happened to set in Germany.  The problem with the story is that, as he very accurately points out, there is nothing at all ‘German’ about the characters.  They could have been citizens of anywhere, with the result that they seem to be citizens of nowhere.

The action in my current project takes place in Las Vegas, which is a place that I don’t claim to know well at all, and I’m hoping to not have to go there for research, because frankly it’s a place that gives me the fantods.  Many years ago I used to enjoy breezing through on the way to or from California, stopping for the breakfast buffet at Circus Circus, and getting the flock back out of Dodge with the grace of alacrity, but nowadays I don’t even like to stop for gas.  I had intended to spend a night in Sin City en route to the West Coast last January, but couldn’t hang with the flashing lights and ringing bells that assaulted me on the way to the check-in desk so ended up driving on through and sleeping, briefly, (it gets cold in the high desert at night) under the stars among the cacti.  Fortunately, my dear old mom is spending a week there of her own free will (there really is no accounting for taste) as I write this, and has promised to check into a few particular locations for me.

The main reason I feel I can get away with this casual approach to location research is that none of the main characters is actually from Vegas.  They are there, briefly, for various reasons.  That is the sort of place it is, mostly, although lately so many people have been choosing to live there that it’s been one of the fastest-growing areas of the country.  It might be interesting to write an actual local color novel about the place in twenty years or so.  The smart money however would not be on me being the one who writes it.