3 ways your hometown can help your novel

News! The Rumpus just put up my piece on their series The Last Book I Loved – Nice Work by David Lodge, if you’re wondering. Lodge is a wonderful comic writer introduced to me by the brilliant Rob Roberge. I learned a lot (and was inspired by) reading and annotating comic novels by Lodge as well as Richard Russo, Carl Hiaasen, Zadie Smith, and others while I was writing my latest, Wrestling Alligators.  You can check out those and more annotations at Annotation Nation.

I’m from La Jolla, CA. It was a spectacularly beautiful place to grow up. La Jolla was the setting for my first book, Dead Weight, as well as my third, Growing Chocolate. I write about La Jolla because I love it, it’s part of me, but I also want to preserve some of my favorite places that no longer exist, including the garden of old family friends, long dead. The garden found a place in Growing Chocolate. I’m experimenting with changing that book into a YA (will let you know how it goes when I’m further in).

La Jolla also makes an appearance in Wrestling Alligators. There are three main characters, siblings who come into conflict: Alison, the oldest, a psych nurse, middle child Brian, a Wall St. strategist, and the youngest, Emma, a painter. At one point, Alison drives to San Diego. What better place for her to stay than the La Valencia? The hotel opened in 1926, designed by architect Reginald Johnson and cost $200,000. My dad used to have his annual office party in the Sky Room, which has a breathtaking view of the coast. More history? Gregory Peck used to host parties for the La Jolla Playhouse in the Whaling Bar. Raymond Chandler used the hotel as the backdrop to his thriller Playback. As long as I’m mentioning a mystery writer, take a look at Aaron Gansky on mystery vs. murky. On to the business at hand…

How can your hometown help your novel?

1. It will provide resonance in your writing. It’s a place where your first memories are formed, where you first explored the world, so those emotions are going to run deep and provide a goldmine of sensory and emotional experiences.

2. You know it and you know it in a way that a visitor can’t. Take a look at how it formed you. I grew up next to the ocean. The smell of the sea was always there. I was able to go to the beach after school whenever I wanted. My experience of the ocean is very different than someone who’s never seen it or from someone who never cares to. My childhood was spent building sandcastles, bodysurfing, running in the sand. When I grew up, I learned scuba diving and wrote a novel about it. Setting doesn’t only affect characters.

3. You know how to adapt it. If you want to create a fictional town for your characters, you can adapt your memories. Chances are those memories aren’t entirely accurate with the passage of time anyway. Use your hometown as a template for a fictional place and redesign it to suit your story.

One last look at the La Valencia

I’m going to have to visit soon…..


5 thoughts on “3 ways your hometown can help your novel”

  1. Great work here. Beginning writers often neglect the importance of setting, but few things will make a story come alive more than a well-realized, complete vision of a setting. And what better place to use than the place you’re most connected to?

  2. You make some great points, Diane, thanks for sharing. There are so many emotions present around “home” that, you’re right, they’ll certainly add texture to one’s writing. I hadn’t thought about it much until I wrote a short story set in my hometown and was surprised, in a workshop, at the way people zeroed in on its authenticity. My tendancy is to go for the “big” settings – Bali, Amsterdam, London, the ones that thrill me – rather than the familiar, so this is an excellent reminder. And congrats on the Rumpus pub!

    1. Thanks for the great post, Diane. You have reminded me how important the visceral memories of childhood are in creating writing. When we write about the place(s) we grew up, we tap into memories that are strong and real for us, and hopefully for the reader. I found it particularly helpful to imagine using our hometown as a fictional setting. Everything that we feel strongly about a place can be transferred into a town/city/community that serves the plot and character purposes of our novel. Very inspiring.

  3. Thanks for the post! We are so aware of the nuances of where we grew up: season changes, smells, subtle changes in the air, that we can bring those places to life better than any other. It is interesting that when submerged in that place fictionally, the true stuff tends to come up. But the true stuff is usually the most useful to us as writers;)

  4. This is a great post, and oh so true. I grew up in Burbank and when I need a setting that is “of” but not “in” Los Angeles, I’ve relied on my home town to fill the role, tweaking the details as needed. And you’re right that memories tend to morph over time, so don’t sweat the small stuff.

    Using an actual location, no matter how much you modify it, gives your story an authenticity you can’t create any other way. Your reader may not know it consciously, but they’ll have a sense of “yes, this writer really was there.”

    Nice to “see” La Valencia again — I spent a weekend there a while back, celebrating an important milestone in my life, and I have so many fond memories. Thanks!

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