The Power of Place by Beth Cato
I despise the song "California Girls" by Katy Perry, and not simply because of the obnoxious beat that gets stuck in my head for hours on end. No, it's how the song perpetuates the myth of the California girl: all tan and sexy and cozying up with hip happenin' people. Pfft.
I'm a real California girl, born and raised, and I don't match the ideal of that song, nor does my concept of the state. I'm from the agricultural heartland, hundreds of square miles of corn, cotton, pecans, and grapes. My California means awakening to the heavy scent of cow manure or spices from the vegetable processing plant. My California brings winter mornings when the fog is so thick that the world ends five feet beyond my door. Sure, people are tanned—to their elbows, or across the backs of their necks.
When I moved from California to South Carolina at age twenty, I met people who didn't believe I was from the Golden State. I didn't have a tan (well, not what they classified as a tan). To their amazement, I hadn't seen any celebrities, though I could boast that Steve Perry of Journey is from my hometown. I had never been to Hollywood, or gone surfing, or seen a movie filmed. They were shocked, and I was shocked that they believed the stereotype.
That's the power of place elevated to mythic proportions. People believe it, and can you completely blame them? It's on TV every single day, on all the magazine covers, in popular songs. I may complain about how people perceive California, but I hold many preconceived notions about places I've never been. Just say, "New York City" or "London" to someone and find out how they describe the place. Maybe it's true and maybe it isn't. When we write, we must be aware of stereotypes, but we also need to stay true to our place settings. That's a big reason why I try to write about many places I've lived, including the San Joaquin Valley of California.
Intimate knowledge of a place is an asset to a writer. Yes, it helps to look at Google Maps, or to see movies, but nothing compares to being there. One intersection has a different stink than the one a block down. Places have moods; if every house on the block has iron bars on the windows and full planters of blooming flowers, that says a lot about the residents and their attitudes. Sunrise and sunset come at different times of the year, and the slant of the light makes a tree into a monster or an illuminated candelabra. Locals have different names for objects, like Coke, soda, and pop, or shopping carts or buggies. Do people drive everywhere, and when they walk do they look other pedestrians in the eye?
If you get those details right, a place comes alive. It becomes a character in its own right. It lives, breathes, and suffers with everyone else. It develops into something deeper than a shallow stereotype, even if you are writing about the world of tanned beach babes and surfer dudes. You have the chance to educate people, too. There's no way I can combat the overwhelming fantasy-land imagery of California. However, I can tell people about a four-hundred mile long stretch of the state that's all too often forgotten, even though its wares fill produce departments around the world.
There's also an element of nostalgia. My stories, essays, and poems grant me the chance to revisit the home I still miss after ten years of living away. Time does make the heart grow fonder, even if the place smells of cow manure.
As a reader, do you have favorite novels or stories that feature locations that come across as living characters? Think on your own writing. Where does your heart take you? Do you find yourself battling stereotypes about place? Compare the myth with the area you know. How can you bring it to life?
Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. She's an associate member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, with work appearing in The Pedestal Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and the MOUNTAIN MAGIC anthology from Woodland Press. Her essays can be found in several volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. For information on her latest projects, please visit http://www.bethcato.com.