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Getting away from it all

For almost two weeks now, I’ve been on the road. I spent a few days in Portland, Oregon, at the Willamette Writers Conference, followed by a week of vacation in mid-coast Maine. And actually, I’m still in Maine, working from our rental house just a few hundred yards from Pemaquid Beach. Even today, with the clouds and fog rolling in, it’s pretty spectacular…

But as I’ve been out of the office and working in various non-NYC places for a good stretch now, I’ve been thinking about locale, access to information, and how they inform a writer’s work. At home in New York, there’s information everywhere you look–screens everywhere, newspapers galore, even news tickers on the side of buildings. And with that, I feel like NYC writers tend to work on a fairly broad canvas of topics and locations.

On the other hand, when I was out in Portland, i.e., a mid-sized, west coast city, the news and information seemed like a mix of local and national concern. And I saw that reflected by the writers I met at the conference, whose pitches seemed fairly evenly split between Oregonian subjects or more worldly concerns. It held for kids’ books, too–50% west coast-based stories, 50% fantasy.

At the same time, here in Maine, information gathering  is very much an individual responsibility–nobody’s going to tell you what’s up in the world besides the Red Sox (hopefully) losing. And fittingly, whenever I meet writers in Maine, their work almost always has a Vacationland focus–maybe they’ll stretch it to Massachusetts, but not much farther than New England.

So, writers, I’m curious: what’s the correlation between your location and your subject matter? Or, to put it another way, how much does the outside world inform your work? BTW, no value judgments here–no one thinks less of Barbara Cooney or Robert McCloskey for staying close to home, and the truths in their books have proven to be universal. But I’d love to hear your thoughts and help me reconnect to the outside world!

4 Responses to Getting away from it all

  1. Kate says:

    I write primarily about where I live, and I love to read books that have a similarly local feel. I enjoy exploring a setting that hasn’t been worked-over a thousand times already. I read to visit other places and meet people who don’t share my daily experiences, so locally-focused books suit me well. To be honest, I’ve gotten tired of reading books about New York or by New York writers. They’ve started to run together for me.

  2. Kim says:

    I find that interesting. I haven’t written anything that takes place in Idaho. I have lived here over 17 years now but I moved all over the country when I was kid and could never call one place home. So the locations where my stories take place tend to be all over the country too.

  3. I have several theories why you encounter authors writing about their backyards. Here’s one perspective from Flannery O’Connor (whose theories are probably better than my own): “As a fiction writer who is a Southerner, I use the idiom and the manners of the country I know, but I don’t consider that I write about the South. So far as I am concerned as a novelist, a bomb on Hiroshima affects my judgment of life in rural Georgia, and this is not the result of taking a relative view and judging one thing by another, but of taking an absolute view and judging all things together….”
    Maybe the question isn’t really about setting, but whether the setting limits the story (New York or Portland or Clyde, Ohio).

  4. Bill says:

    I live in Maine, so let me suggest something based on personal observations: Maine is like Texas, California, Montana, and a few other places. People here like to be reminded that they live in Maine and that they deserve to be proud of it.

    You can sell anything here if you can say, “It’s perfect for our Maine summers!” (or winters, etc.). You cannot sell a truck in the Lone Star State unless you point out that it’s “a Texas truck for Texas workloads”. Similarly, anything you sell to a Californian has to be “for our California lifestyle”.

    Consequently, the sense of place is very strong among Maine writers. It’s part of their psychic makeup as Mainers.

    PS — This is going to sound awful, but it’s a fact: a lot of Mainers have never been anywhere else!

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