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Where I’ve been

When I came across the review for Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn in the New York Times the other day, I jumped to read it. Despite that this was the first I’d heard of this book, the title alone was enough for me to get interested. While many of the authors discussed in Literary Brooklyn and this article never once have set a story there, their writing lives were still enmeshed in the distinctive borough. Of course, there are the mainstays in literature—both contemporary and historical—that would be entirely different stories if they took place anywhere else.

There’s more to my excitement about this book than pure literary interest in the lives and writings of good authors. Had Literary Brooklyn been written three years ago, I would have cared far less, but because I now call Brooklyn home, the connection to place has obviously been strengthened. I reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn several months ago for the first time since my teens and marveled at my newfound ability to picture the streets Francie Nolan grew up around (albeit in a very different context and time). While an unfamiliarity with a book’s setting hardly detracts from one’s enjoyment of it, there’s a certain thrill and delight that arises from reading the names of places—specific streets or shops—that before had been common and everyday.

I’m hardly alone in this sentiment. It’s why books about specific states, towns or regions sell far better in those places than they do anywhere else. In the past, I’ve chosen to read books that I wouldn’t normally have been jumping out of my chair to get at simply because they took place near to my hometown, or later, in and around cities I’d lived in. The more localized the better. This connection to the author as well as anyone else who has or will read the book, though it only exists in my mind, heightens immensely my enjoyment of whatever the story may be.

I feel that this is true for everyone and I wonder how much being able to exclaim, “Oh! I know where that is!” affects literary judgment. It certainly helps local promotion for the book itself if the publisher and author can ground it firmly in a specific area. This sentimental attachment to place, no matter how many people can claim it, is a big attractor. I am clearly affected and am interested to know whether you are as well. Are there books you have read that you know you’ve enjoyed more simply because you were able to indentify with place?

6 Responses to Where I’ve been

  1. Absolutely, where matters. John Sandford’s Prey Series does that for me. I spent 4 years of my life in undergrad in downtown Minneapolis. I know all the places he talks about and I can picture them because I’ve been there. This is the reason I’m so specific in geographical accuracy when I write books. It helps that I have lived in several states and I have been to nearly all the states. Google Maps helps ensure accuracy but I wouldn’t even know to look if I hadn’t been there in the first place.
    My first novel takes place in Atlanta and also the suburb of Stone Mountain. My second novel will take place in Chicago and Milwaukee, only the reader won’t know it’s Milwaukee until the end. I’m exploiting the similarities of both cities for the purpose of Mystery. :-)
    PS I was just in Brooklyn and I was inspired to set my third novel in Brooklyn. I have family all over NY so I always go there. But this was the first time I got to experience The Bronx, Queens (besides Shea) and Brooklyn. I love the “smaller” borroughs.

  2. Donn says:

    I’ve found that visiting a place increases my interest in books written about it, definitely.

    But I’ve also found that my critical senses are heightened when reading something set in a place I know. If it doesn’t ring true, I’ll actually dislike the book more than if it were set somewhere else.

  3. Stephanie P says:

    Region definitely affects the books I pick up. If I’ve lived there or traveled there I’m more likely to purchase the book, either to see other people’s perspective of the place, to be nostalgic, or to giggle at the inside jokes. For me it’s the Mediterranean that will immediately catch my eye. For some reason this doesn’t translate to NYC for me- my birthplace and home. I saw that Brooklyn book in the bookstore today and specifically ignored it- because I assume (rightly or wrongly) that most of the work is written by either out-of-staters who make this home as they “find themselves”, gentrifiers, cliche chic lit, etc etc (yes that’s unfair and harsh!, it’s my initial reaction though that I have to work past…) and it just seems soulessly trendy. Doesn’t mean there aren’t good NYC stories, it just means I’m more selective about which ones I pick up, this town being so diverse. And… I might visit a place simply because of a great fiction book that intrigued me.

  4. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    I enjoyed a scifi novel called “The Fortec Conspiracy,” set in Palo Alto CA, even more when I found out I could drive to many of the locations set in the book.

  5. DBurks says:

    Recently I picked up a book called ‘The Daily Coyote’ which I think is a DGLM property. It attracted my attention because of the cover picture of a coyote and the western setting. I live in the west on a farm and I have lots of coyote neighbors. I was delightd to find that even though the writer was an eastern city girl she did a fine and accurate job of capturing the details while telling a good story. I suppose a citified reader would not know if it was accurate or not,and I would bet that the agent and editor asked her many times, “Do coyotes really do that?” How would a New York editor know?

    And you know, the best way to win a Nobel Prize is to write about a specific time and an exotic place. It worked for Kipling in India, Pearl Buck in China and William Faulkner in Mississippi. I spent a good deal of time in Northern Mississippi, and it is fascinating how Faulkner so accurately describes the culture and people and landscape while creating a fictional county. If Khaled Hosseini keeps writing Afghan books he will eventually get a Nobel, too.

    Books that get the location details wrong make my teeth hurt from the grinding. I try to make the physical setting in my stories perform as one of the characters rather than be just background. I find it challenging, and it gives me a way to link the people and events together with a common thread.

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