I am seething with jealousy.
The woman at the next table in the cafe section at the downtown Barnes and Noble has a small stack of Rick Steves travel books. She is currently paging through one on Ireland. The other books include Dublin, Scotland, and I’m assuming other points within the British Isles. I want to go over to her, tell her Ireland is as beautiful as she’ll imagine it to be, but I decide to let her figure it out for herself.
My imagination has a huge fault. I have no trouble picturing people and catastrophes, hearing the things they whisper and scream at each other. When it comes to places, though, everything is steeped in reality.
So far, pretty much everything I’ve written is set in my hometown of Seattle. This is partly because I love this city and I want people to discover the places that make it such a fun and fabulous place to live.
The other part is because I have a hard time imagining imaginary places, or putting imaginary places into real places. And that sentence makes absolutely no sense, but I can’t think of a better way to say it.
I hate New York City. Same with Los Angeles and San Diego. In the movies, in books, they look and sound like great places. Fun places. Gritty places. Then I get there and I’m extremely disappointed because the reality is nothing like the fiction. New York City in the movies looks nothing like it does in real life-it’s huge, dirty, often smelly and always confusing. At least to me.
Buenos Aires was disappointing because while it looked exactly like you’d picture it, it smelled of diesel fuel the entire time I was there. I’d always imagined that Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport was a hub of excitement, and then it turned out to be, hands down, the most boring airport in the world to get stuck in for seven hours. Seven hours.
Ireland was one of the few places I’ve been that looked, smelled, and sounded exactly like everything ever written about it. It’s a beautiful country, the people are by turns extraordinarily polite and rude, and the food isn’t all that great, but the beer’s fabulous.
The whole point of this is setting. I’m in the middle of reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, her book on writing, and she was describing a character’s love of gardening. She does not love to garden. In fact, she kills plants on a regular basis. But by the time she’d finished constructing the setting (with the help of a young man at a local nursery), she’d managed to convince the vast majority of readers that she loves gardening.
I have confidence in my ability to create a memorable character. What I want now, more than anything, is to show the reader 1980’s New York City, inside a dirty, decrepit bar down the street from a recording studio. I want the reader to see the inside of a loft, high above Pioneer Square, the furnishings sparse to showcase the vast amount of space inside the apartment. I want the reader to see the inside of my favorite Mexican restaurant on the Montlake Cut, or the inside of an independent bookstore in the heart of LA’s Silverlake neighborhood.
Actually, if I’m being truthful, right now I want Zen to stop meowing uncontrollably. I don’t speak cat, so I have no idea what he wants. It’s annoying.
I think my problem has to do with using actual locations. If I’m describing something in Seattle, chances are I’ve probably been there. Or if I haven’t, I can, to make sure I get the details right. I hate it when I’m reading something set in my hometown and the author makes up a bunch of shit about neighborhoods that don’t exist or places that aren’t real, and I’m irrationally afraid that if I choose a setting outside of what I’m familiar with, someone will read it and be all, “That’s totally not right!”
Should this matter? Absolutely not. It’s my imagination. Does that mean I’m going to stop worrying about it any time soon? Absolutely not. I’m entitled to my paranoia. That paranoia is what gets the tiny details right, like the interminable line outside Portland’s Voodoo Donuts, or the fact that there’s a Goodwill on San Mateo Boulevard in Albuquerque.
Paranoia. The writer’s best friend.