Monday, February 1, 2016

Hallie, on setting a novel outside your comfort zone

HALLIE EPHRON: It's WHAT WE'RE WRITING week and I get to lead off.

I’m writing a book about a woman who makes porcelain portrait dolls, each a one-of-a-kind portrait of a real girl. The first two dolls she made were for her daughters – Janey when she was a toddler, and Vanessa a few years older. Janey dragged that doll around with her everywhere, and when she was four, both she and the doll disappeared. Forty years later, the doll comes back.

Early on, I decided the story took place in the south. I envisioned the characters living in the historic section of Beaufort (BUE-fert), South Carolina, a stately town set in the crook of the Beaufort River. I’d been there twice and it’s one of those incredibly picturesque places that stick with you.

I wrote half the book, coasting on memory and, as it would turn out, running on fumes. A few weeks ago I made a trip to Beaufort, hoping to absorb enough ambience and history so that my version of the town wouldn’t embarrass me. I stayed in an inn in the part of town where I imagined my characters living.

What I discovered was a town that is not only beautiful and varied,
but one that has a rich colorful history, some of it so wild it defies fictionalization except by a genius writer like John Berendt. For instance, his voodoo priestess “Minerva” in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is based on Valerie Fennel Aiken Boles who lived in Beaufort. The city named its McTeer Bridge for a famous sheriff who was widely believed to be a white witch doctor.

Beaufort was just as picturesque as I remembered. Live oaks dripping with Spanish moss lined the main streets. Shrimping is a local industry, and shrimp boats like the one Officer Dan jumped off in Forrest Gump (filmed in Beaufort), fish up and down the river. Oysters
grow in clusters so plentiful that at low tide, masses of them are visible at the edges of the river and on pilings. At low tide, people walking in the marsh’s pluff mud risk having their boots sucked right off their feet. The tide there rises and falls 9 feet, so if you get stuck in the mud for long enough you'll be a goner.

I realized in short order that I couldn’t possibly learn as much as I needed to in order to do justice to Beaufort. So I did what writers do – search and replace! Beaufort became Bonsecours. Like Beaufort, Bonsecours has a gorgeous historic old town, bridges, marinas, live oaks and magnolias and pecan trees. Its modern police station has a “fallen officers” memorial outside. Its historic center is also home to a state university campus, tucked into the elbow of the river. But I hope calling it Bonsecours gives me license to invent a fictional place inspired, truly inspired by Beaufort.

Here’s my description of Vanessa Woodham arriving in Savannah and driving to Bonsecours:

The women at T. F. Green airport departure gates had been clothed in shades of gray and black, most of them wearing jackets and sweaters and boots. In Savannah women were in short sleeves and bright colors, and the FlipFlop Stop was doing a brisk business. The car Vanessa rented was a nondescript gray compact which fortunately had New Jersey plates and honked when she pressed the remote or she’d never have picked it out in a crowd.

She entered the hospital address into her phone’s GPS. Found a country and western music station, cranked the volume, and drove, trying not to think about what she’d find when she got to the hospital.

We’re not in Kansas any more she thought as she passed billboard after billboard on the Interstate hawking fireworks (“Buy One Get One FREE!” “Get the best BANG for your buck!”) You could get arrested in Rhode Island for just having a sparkler in the trunk of your car.

She continued on, exiting the highway and continuing across the vast Port Royal Sound. She’d forgotten how much sky there was here, blue in all directions with turkey vultures teetering high overhead. Live oaks arching across from the sides of the road were the first hint that she was getting close. Their spreading branches dripped with pale gray Spanish moss which hung indiscriminately telephone wires and fences, too.

Hoping this will pass muster with my southern friends. 

Today's question: How important is it that the setting of a book ring true to the people who live there? Have you had that experience where a single oh-so-wrong detail yanks you right off the page?


  1. Spanish moss everywhere was one of the first things I remember noticing when we moved from California to Alabama.

    Unless the detail is particularly egregious, I can be relatively forgiving with regard to setting in a story. I like visualizing the place in my mind and enjoy the creativity of the writer in describing the scene.

  2. Hallie, it's interesting, trying to write about a place you've only visited--putting those details in a place of your own imagination let's you build a world for your characters. It works for me! Love the excerpt.

    What pulls me out of a story is not so much one wrong detail, but more a generic description of place--bland and lacking the details that make the landscape seem familiar to the reader.

  3. Fascinating, Hallie! Hmmm, not sure if I've ever read a novel set in Buffalo (my hometown). Oh wait, there was CITY OF LIGHT, but the author was a native.

  4. South Carolina...peaches, fireworks and cigarettes at the next exit!

  5. Setting is so important when you are using real places. When I read books set in "my" towns I love it when they have fictionalized places in the towns. I always spend time trying to guess what the inspiration of the location was. I'm a stickler for streets being correct. I don't mind invented settings, but don't tell me the town center is "High Street" when it's "Park Avenue." That will pull me out of a story. And the tone has to be correct. Other than that, it's all fair game!

  6. Hallie, it's always a challenge to set a book in a real place. Get one thing wrong and readers write to you! Also you are limited by where things are and how long it takes to get around. I was stupid enough to set books in New York and London and gave my street maps open all the time when I write! Good idea to fictionalization!

  7. I'm with FChurch - it's not so much one wrong detail as a lack of details. Of course, now that I write that, if I really knew the area and something was wrongly written, it would give me a moment's pause.

    I've written books set just south of Pittsburgh in the Laurel Highlands and I visit there every so often to immerse myself in the setting. And I wrote one set in Niagara Falls. Growing up in Buffalo I was pretty familiar with the setting for that one. And some pictures set me right on a couple things I didn't remember as clearly.

    I think if you're going to write about a real place, you have to make a genuine attempt, to get it right. I love how Hank puts disclaimers about Boston in her books.

  8. Writing that down: Not the wrong details but a lack of details. Very smart.

    And I'm pulling one of Hank's books off my shelf right now to her disclaimer about Boston which she knows it like the back of her hand, even though she doesn't drive it.

    Laughed out loud (really) when I read Margaret's "cigarettes at the next exit." And firearms as well as fireworks. The views, spectacular! SO MUCH SKY, especially for a New Englander.

    And the food. Rapture.

    Though one thing I do not get: biscuits with gravy. Can anyone explain that to me? Please??

  9. Unless it is a setting I know very very well, I can usually accept the author's version of the place without much trouble. I hope that they did their research and are presenting the most accurate version of a place as they can, but do I really know if they are successful - not typically.

    That said, one of many reasons I am in awe of Laura Lippman is because of the way she is able to bring Baltimore to life. Having lived her for most of my life (except for a brief six year period in San Diego), I know this area intimately and can attest to how spot-on Laura's version is. I am just now reading her new 2016 book, which happens to be set very close to my current home, and I am learning so much about that area, an area (Columbia, MD) that I thought I knew so much about already. That is the gift an author who does her/his research is able to grant to the reader.

  10. I so agree, Kristopher, Laura Lippman nails Baltimore. When I was in Beaufort, just about everyone I spoke to mentioned hometown boy Pat Conroy. Not only a great writer but a much beloved and generous person, by all accounts.

  11. I don't get biscuits and gravy, either. Is that really food?

    Yes, Pat Conroy gets the details so right. My youngest daughter graduated from the Citadel in Charleston (the 171st woman to do so), and so we spent a lot of time there. In some ways it was easier to navigate the city because I'd read two of his novels that took place there.

    My preference, generally, is to have enough background information on setting to visualize the whole scene. It must take a delicate balancing act to achieve the right feel, though. An appealing setting makes me want to visit the place, especially in the kind of book that sticks with me after I've finished the story.

  12. Not the wrong detail, but too little detail. Yes, that's it absolutely. Although if you get a BIG detail wrong, it throws everyone out of the story. Famous example: the end of THE GREEN BERETS, where John Wayne and Adorable Vietnamese Orphan watch the sun setting into the South China Sea...which is east of Viet Nam.

    The other thing that bugs me are over-idealized places, fictional or factual. I think this gets to me because there are so many books set in Maine that feature twee, squeaky-clean villages full of adorable quirky inhabitants. Having lived here for the better part of my life, it sets my teeth on edge. Where are the car dealerships? The single-wide trailers? The skeevy head shop that gets raided by the cops regularly? How about winter, with the salt eating away at cars and the ice dams on the roof? Give me details, but make sure they're not all pretty.

  13. Biscuits and gravy--yes! In my great-grandma's, grandma's, and Mom's versions--lots of flavor (and sausage) in the gravy, with tender, flaky biscuits. Will I ever order at a restaurant? Not on your life--only if I want to eat wallpaper paste over rocks, which I could make at home if I wanted. ;-)

  14. Oh, this sounds good! I always get a little thrill of excitement when you start posting what you are working on. I know that when the book comes out I am in for another all-nighter to finish. the Flip Flop Stop - love it!

    I love it when I recognize places, food, habits about Chicago (closest thing to my hometown in fiction, nobody writes about Cedar Lake, Indiana). But unless the author is describing Chicago so that it sounds like Miami, I don't worry too much about the accuracy of details. If it makes me feel at home that's enough.

  15. Wallpaper paste over rocks! YES! That's just what it looks like. Sounds like I have to get a recipe for sausage gravy and try making it - I make a mean buttermilk biscuit already.

    Julia, I'm with you. I remember reading a book about Cambridge MA... the description was so off that I saved it:
    “Outside, sloping up from the muddy river, spread the curiously European village of Cambridge, Massachusetts.” She taxies up Memorial Drive: “…even a clean hint of coming frost in the air couldn’t entirely subdue the reeking diesel and industrial smells.” Sounds like St. Mary Meade meets southeast Jersey.

    And I always think of The Beans of Egypt Maine for the seamier side of Maine.

  16. The Beans of Egypt Maine completely changed how I view fiction, Hallie. And how I viewed Maine, for certain!

    FChurch, that sounds way better. No one I know makes anything remotely like that, though.

  17. A brave choice! This is a place you have only visited, never lived in? And to tackle the South with all its historic and cultural depth. I can't wait for this one. I won't be a judge, since I know nothing about Beaufort.

    But you asked if we react to errors in books (and I will add, in movies). Having lived in the Washington, DC area for 40 years I frequently pick up inconsistencies in the way the geography of the Capitol City is portrayed. But generally I just think it's funny, and also consider why they wanted -- for example, the Washington Monument -- a particular place to be in that scene.

    Thanks for sharing -- I can't wait. (But I won't rush you!!)

  18. I was about to say that, Hallie! I try to head off criticism by essentially saying in the acks: hey, there are places that in this book don't exist, or whatever I said, "I've tweaked Boston geography in places" because of course,I know Boston perfectly. (What Hallie means is that I hate to drive because I have such terrible vision and zero depth perception--but luckily in my reporting job, the photographer always drives--so the reporter can think and observe.) Because there's "right" and there's also "appropriate." I won't make a real one-way street into two-way, but I WILL add a street that doesn't exist if I nee to kill someone there, or have someone's home there. My goal is to make a story about a real place--in which fictional people live.

  19. I will stop reading a book if the author was too lazy to get his basic facts right. I love to read stories set in places I've lived in. It is so much fun to pick up on things that only people who have lived there will catch. Biscuits with gravy? No. I live in the South but never picked up on that one. But that is because I don't care for sausage much. The fireworks sign made me laugh. That's the real deal. There is a shack near where my inlaws used to live that advertises: Buy 1 Get 11 free.

  20. Not forgetting the giant peach water tower in Gaffney,in Frank Underwood's district in season one of "House of Cards."

  21. Oh, Hallie, the book sounds wonderful and spooky! A professor at a well known MFA Creative writing program once told a class I was in that you could move the Statue of Liberty if you did it well. I don't think that I could pull that off.

  22. Oh, porcelain portrait dolls -- creepy cool, love it -- and setting a story featuring porcelain portrait dolls in the South is too perfect. The one goes with the other. :-)

    I'm reading a novel set in Portland, and the author got a basic thing wrong. I'm usually go with the flow in my reading, but this did jar me because it was so basic and easy to fact check. But I'm still reading -- I don't think a mistake is enough to set a book aside. Mistakes happen -- I'm pretty forgiving.

    In fact, now that I'm on the other side of the reader-writer divide, I'm MORE forgiving (especially about typos), precisely because I know how hard novel-writing is. Is anyone else like that?

    When I think about setting, I think about the *feel* of a place. That's way more important to me than 100% factual accuracy. (I also use fictional license to change things up as needed for the story.) As a reader, if the atmosphere of the place is there, then I don't sweat the factual stuff.

  23. Oh, Pat Conroy -- THE PRINCE OF TIDES is on my all-time favorite list. Too bad when I think of the book all I see are Barbra Streisand's crazy long fingernails, hah!

  24. Moving the Statue of Liberty! VERY high degree of difficulty. But--aliens?

  25. And yes, Hallie, the doll are instantly wonderfully creepy. And can't you just SEE the cover?

  26. "Forty years later, the doll comes back." Oh, you have me hooked, Hallie! I, too, think you are so brave to set the book somewhere you haven't lived or visited a lot, and I love your solution to avoiding misrepresenting or getting something wrong. Make it a fictitious place based on a real place. I can completely accept that. And, I think the setting you've chosen for this story is going to be perfect. Hank, I like how you describe it as tweaking a setting and including a disclaimer in the book.

    Of course, there are books that I've read and read where the setting is familiar to me, and I enjoy the accuracy of it. Lucy, your Key West series is like a trip to a favorite place every time I read a book in it. And, when you have to tweak something, like add a new restaurant where there isn't really one or it isn't the one you've named, that's okay, too, because I'm enjoying all the old familiar places along with it.

    In other words, I'm not too harsh about settings, mistakes made, but I do appreciate the hard work put in researching by authors to get it as right as possible. Gee, you authors have to think about an awful lot when writing a story. Hehehe!

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  28. Lisa - you cracked me up with the fingernails. That is a problem when beloved books get turned into movies.

    I love Lucy's Key West, too, esp the restaurants which I KNOW are based on real ones. But I've often wonders if she actually toodles around there on a motorbike the way Hayley Snow does. Such a good idea, because then Hayley doesn't have to worry about where to park.

    After I read Julia's In the Deep Midwinter I swore off any ever potential winter trips to the Adirondacks. I read that book wrapped in blankets.

  29. Seriously. Her fingernails were the star of the movie. I couldn't keep my eyes off them--so distracting. :-)

  30. Hallie, your books have settings that are so clearly character, The pages absorb me even when I've never been there. Many times I feel I have, because... there is a special grace given to place and the orientation of time in space. But... there are always readers, some readers whose rai·sons d'être are to criticize and show their own superior knowledge. They don't go away, because if they don't feed their egos they die. My father used to say when they do die the light goes on at the end of the tunnel and they see all all their exalted rules to the edges of an alphabet centrifuge. I look so damn forward to reading your book set in Bonsecours!

  31. Hank, I love the way you write Boston. It's a place where being too specific can, in a very short period of time, be completely different... pre-parkway... that new bridge... one way streets... or even Magdala over by Ashmont Station--for a time--one way in both directions, and maintained that way by the city. You wouldn't want to write that up wrong. You never know who's still alive. Or maybe you do. All the hidey holes. Those are great. Those who know, know. Those who don't, don't care--unless they're looking for them.

  32. Lucie, Debs--
    Each book I read that is set in a place I don't know, like Lucie's Florida, or Scotland or England by Debs, I find myself wanting to travel and see what it feels like to me. Much of fiction is made real by the insight of emotional life that what it truly has to offer must be felt. If it feels good when you read it, you want to find the feeling in real space. Sometimes that means visiting a distillery in Scotland, joining a special reserve whiskey of the month club, or settling for the next good book with a delicious setting.

  33. My latest novel is set in a fictitious county modeled after my home county, but set in 1973. I was able to take liberties while having fun with sites recognizable to anyone familiar with the area.

    Hallie, your line about the doll returning forty years later really sent shivers down my spine! Sounds like you have a best seller in the works. Your reference to the voodoo priestess in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil hooked me good.

  34. Oh, Lisa, now you've got me thinking of Mike Myers as Linda Richman: "The Prince of Tides is neither about Princes or Tides. Discuss."

    Hallie: I like that you decided to move your setting to a fictionalized version of a real place, to ward off the nit-pickers, much as Michener created Tell Makor as a mini-Jerusalem for The Source. Now Bonsecours becomes your place, and you become responsible for its internal integrity, for which some eagle-eyed reader will be watching if ever you set another story there...and I'm also with Lisa...creepy dolls automatically up the stakes in my book. Actually, you didn't say that the dolls were creepy (although dolls designed to look like real girls are prima facie creepy in my book), but for some people, dolls and clowns are, by definition, creepy.