A Strange Sense of Place

I always have mixed feelings about reading books set where I live, or in a thinly fictionalised version of the place I live, because I end up spending the entire text waiting for the author to mess up. Unless, of course, I know the author and am confident that the author is actually familiar with the area; isn’t just someone who lived here a long time ago and views it through rose-coloured glasses, or has a vacation home here/went here on a trip once and liked it. Because the fact of the matter is that when you are using a real place where real people live as part of your setting, you are evoking a very specific sense of place and you’re trafficking on something that people actually experience, and the stakes get a lot higher.

I’m often irked by errors of geography that come up in books set here; a drive that is suspiciously and impossibly short, a passage where people take a nonsensical route to somewhere else, a description of the town that indicates only a fuzzy knowledge and understanding. These are frustrating simply on the grounds that some basic research and observation could resolve them; if you want to write a book set somewhere, you should either go there and do some serious poking around, or you should do some meticulous research.

This is not complex, arcane, local-specific knowledge. Anyone looking at a map would note, for example, that it would make more sense for someone to take Highway 20 to Ukiah from Fort Bragg than Comptche-Ukiah or 253. You don’t need to know that Comptche-Ukiah is in such poor shape that you need a pretty tough car to make it over in the winter, even. You also wouldn’t need to know that there are differing camps among locals over taking 128 or 20 to access 101 to get to the City; you could pick a road based on a map and proximity (a character living in Mendocino would probably take 128 for geographical reasons, a character living in Caspar might choose 20) and that would be just fine, and perfectly believable for local readers.

It’s when people get into the sense of place and the people that I begin to be troubled, because people are talking about communities they don’t fully understand, and it’s jarring for me as a local reader. I’m well aware that it’s possible to view one community through many different lenses, for two people living in the same place to have radically different perceptions of it and experiences within it. This is actually part of the crux of my argument, though; I have a very different lived experience than, say, someone who went to Fort Bragg High School and chose to stay in town working somewhere, someone who might go hunting or fishing with the family, who has a long-established family here that goes back generations.

Yet, neither of our experiences are represented in these kinds of texts. Instead it’s fantasy people who float through a fantasy world where the actual residents become props and scene-setting. We’re just there for ‘local colour,’ not as human beings. The person who hunts is a backwards hick, the writer who lives in the woods is a naive hippie. The local business over is cute and quaint with a ready smile for everyone, the laid-off mill worker who hasn’t been able to find a job since the closure of the mill is just a bitter old guy sitting on a bar stool at the local drinking establishment[1. We won’t even get into the nuances between the different bars and their populations.].

I get tense reading books set where I am because I am constantly waiting for the author to jerk me out of the story with an abuse of the setting. It’s one reason I tend to prefer purely fictional places; a book set ‘in Northern California,’ for example, with a mixture of places that could represent any number of communities. There’s nothing there for me to pick at, nothing there for me to wrinkle my nose over. I can sink deep into the story and the setting the author created to serve the characters, rather than feeling like my back is being used as a stage to advance a story.

I don’t know if other readers feel this way. Maybe it has something to do with a profound attachment to the place I live, and a dislike of romanticisation. Maybe people feel differently in urban areas where a city is so large and complex, with so many ecosystems within, that it’s easier to suspend disbelief, although I doubt city dwellers are in love with blatant abuses of urban geography. And this is a place that is just as complex as a city, albeit in different ways. It is not simple, it is not easy to know, it can be a difficult place to love, sometimes, and outsiders rarely know it well.

In cities, there is a constant ebb and flow, a population that shifts and changes. Outsiders come and go, learn their communities. Some communities are more insular than others and may never welcome new people, but others do. Here, there is much more of a barrier, overall, between locals and outsiders, between the people who come in and the people who live here. And maybe that’s why I am so troubled by the use of this place from people who don’t live here—they are telling me how to feel about the place I live from the position of outsidership, they are writing my experience without acknowledging my humanity.

There are a lot of writers up here, including some very well-known ones. Intriguingly, many of them don’t set their books here, but instead take people elsewhere, to other places. Perhaps that speaks to a larger desire on the part of writers to push outside their comfort zones and explore new places through text, and maybe that’s what’s going on when people abuse this place as a setting without understanding it. Either way, when I read their work, I can’t help but wonder how the people in the places they’re writing about feel about it.

And when I read books set in other places, this is often a question in my mind: How do locals feel about them? Do they think the depiction is accurate, or doesn’t serve them?