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The Power of Place

Another special treat today. Beth Cato (aka [info]celestialgldfsh* ) second and third placed runner-up in last year's contest for The Meager Puddle of Limelight Award for Best Opening Line, stops by to share her thoughts on the importance of getting the details right, when it comes to the setting of a story.

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.

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( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for having me, Jon! Perhaps next time I should choose a more controversial subject matter, eh? Well, not that California doesn't attract its share of controversy...
Jan. 27th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
Lol, a lot of folks have been shovelling snow all day. I know I have :)
Jan. 27th, 2011 11:01 pm (UTC)
A cousin of a cousin of mine married one of the actresses from Baywatch. My relative was born in Iowa and moved to California, where he met her. When he came back with her, he had short, spiked hair, a tan, an attitude, and had transformed himself into a stereotype. She was born in California, and was very polite, friendly, and dressed like the "girl next door."

Charles DeLint wrote a series of stories and books in one city, which seemed to meld Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, and Vancouver, Canada, all together. I kept wondering which was his primary influence. Turns out he was writing about Toronto.
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:04 am (UTC)
The cousin of a cousin story is fun. How long did his California-looking phase last? I wonder how he would look back at that in retrospect.

I've read some of DeLint's Newford stories. I pictured the place as somewhere along the Pacific Northwest coastline. If I get to Toronto someday, perhaps I can connect it with the mood he depicts so well in his books.
Jan. 30th, 2011 12:07 am (UTC)
That's where I thought it was, too.

I didn't know the cousin of a cousin well enough to answer your question. I haven't seen him since.
Jan. 27th, 2011 11:47 pm (UTC)
Richard Russo never ceases to amaze me with the sense of place in his novels, and how right he gets it, whether it's upstate New York where he was born--which I have been through enough have a sense of how right he is--or Maine towns (or the fictional college, which is based on the one where he taught after I graduated). Chris Bohjalian also does a stellar job of getting places right, and has from his first novel, Water Witches on.
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:06 am (UTC)
I haven't read either Richard Russo or Chris Bohjalian. I'll keep an eye out for their books!
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:08 am (UTC)
Thanks, Jennifer!
Jan. 28th, 2011 04:36 am (UTC)
Being from NJ used to mean everyone thought you had big hair, really long nails and a voice to put Fran Drescher to shame. Then it meant being one of the Sopranos. Now, it everyone from NJ is associated with The Jersey Shore crew.

Stereotypes can be funny, they can even be helpful at times, most of the time, it's a hurdle to somehow get over.

Great stuff here. Thanks!
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:13 am (UTC)
Yes, New Jersey definitely carries stereotypes--mostly negative. In the case of Jersey Shore, that show should be removed from TV simply because of how it reflects on humanity in general. It's sad when an entire state is characterized because of a handful of over-tanned alcoholics.

Jan. 29th, 2011 04:42 am (UTC)
And the REALLY sad thing is, they're not even from NJ. They're mostly from Long Island. Snookie is from Poughkeepsie, NY. Ugh...it's ridiculous.
Jan. 28th, 2011 06:25 am (UTC)
Great point. Stereotypes do take over reality sometimes. I like books that challenge the stereotype.
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:16 am (UTC)
Thanks! I like books that challenge stereotypes of place--though I wonder if they're harder to sell, simply because people won't be interested in a duller truth.
Jan. 28th, 2011 11:01 am (UTC)
Euw, god, that song IS horrible...

So whenever my brother travels,
people ask where he's from and he tells them Nebraska,
and they ask what he does,
he tells them he's a computer programmer,
As if you couldn't have an internet connection in a sod house...

Which segues nicely into one of my favourite Cather passages-
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land— slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Among other things, Cather is famous
for making the landscape into a character.
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:20 am (UTC)
At a writers' conference last year, one of the speakers also read a passage of Willa Cather as an example of place. It was mesmerizing. I really need to read her full novels.

Your brother's story reminds me of an incident in my own family from back in the late 1960s. My mom was a child traveling with her parents, and they did a road trip from California to Missouri. They visited a church, and it was announced that was grandpa was a preacher. Afterward, a lady came up and asked, "You're from California? They have churches there now?"
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:10 pm (UTC)
Jan. 28th, 2011 11:12 am (UTC)
BTW, in Around the World in Eighty Days
Jules Verne says more about Nebraska
than anywhere else Phileas Fogg visits,
but no movie version even mentions Nebraska.
At the time he wrote it,
Nebraska was the most exotic place a European could imagine;
but for movie makers, Gene Hackman's line from Unforgiven sums it up-
"Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska."

And as long as I'm promoting Nebraska--
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:24 am (UTC)
I haven't been to Nebraska, so I can't speak about it one way or another. Personally, I think where I live west of Phoenix, Arizona, is a disgustingly ugly place for most of the year (and when it's pretty in the late summer evenings, it's 110-degrees and about to monsoon).

Jan. 29th, 2011 03:13 pm (UTC)
I was just talking about Yogi Berra,
and you've reminded me of something
I think he said-
Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.

But maybe Arizona was always ugly.
Jan. 29th, 2011 04:25 am (UTC)
I love the video! What a fun song.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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