A Sense of Place
My parents’ hometown was the setting for a short story printed in one of my favorite national magazines recently. At least that’s the name the writer used. Specific. Spelled correctly. He repeated the name in the story, and each time it jumped out at me, like seeing my own name on someone else’s website. It just didn’t ring true.
Don’t get me wrong, I do know the story was fiction. I write fiction. I didn’t expect to see people I used to know traipsing through the story, doing the things they would have done in real life in the 60s, when I last spent any quality time there. I wasn’t insulted by the decadence of the residents or any of the plot points. I thought he was a skilled writer. I was disappointed in the writer’s sense of place.
He took a town that rests squarely in Southern Indiana and slid it so far east and north it was closer to Michigan than Kentucky, and with that move it took on the character of the large northern cities. The early 1900 setting was filled with immigrants from the wrong countries, and I could get picky here, but that’s not my intent. It’s a story. My point is that even fiction brings with it a responsibility to be honest with the reader.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “What Good Is a Story?” from her 2002 book Small Wonder, she writes of serving as guest editor of a special short story collection and the trials of selecting the right stories. “For me to love a work of fiction, it must survive my harpy eye on all accounts,” she writes. “It will tell me something remarkable, it will be beautifully executed, and it will be nested in truth. The latter I mean literally; I can’t abide fiction that fails to get its facts straight.” Trained as a scientist, Kingsolver goes on to mention “botched Spanish or French,” and “books in which birds sang on the wrong continents.”
Maybe there are only two people, myself and a family friend now settled in New Mexico, who know something about that little town, and subscribe to this particular magazine, and actually read the fiction selection each month. Maybe the author picked the name because of how it rolled off his tongue. Maybe he didn’t own an atlas, an Indiana map or have access to the Internet. But maybe he underestimates his reader.
On a research trip to Florida for a novel I’m writing, I heard over and over again why the local fishermen and liveaboarders love Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford novels. He gets the sense of place. They read him because he knows the waters of Sanibel and Ft. Myers. He knows the creatures that inhabit the area, finned or footed. But even Doc Ford lives in a fictitious marina.
Reading this small town story was a lesson in location. Everyone’s from somewhere. As writers, we’d do well to remember that.