Setting was never a difficult choice for me. I have always loved New York, and it made sense for many of my young, upwardly mobile characters to live in “the city where dreams come true.” Clichéd as it may be, I always liked that idea.
However, I also like the idea of a persistent and talented dreamer who leaves their “small” town and moves to the big city. As a result, a lot of my characters start out as Coloradans and end up moving to a city that is more of a “hub” for their interests or industry. This is not to say Colorado is not a hub for certain things and certain people: it’s a Mecca for skiers, hikers, rock climbers, beer enthusiasts and many more.
The difference is many of my characters are like me: they like films, restaurants, museums, and writing in a busy coffee shop. In my experience, that is not the kind of thing people (readers) associate with Colorado living.
People come to Colorado to play: experience nature, roam across the plains, hike up mountains, ski back down them, raft rivers, etc. My characters are just not that outdoorsy.
Time is money, and commuting sucks
Another reason I prefer big city settings is public transportation. My characters like to take the subway, walk a few blocks, or around town, climb into cabs, hop a bus from time to time. Colorado people don’t do that. They drive. A lot. Everywhere. Colorado grew outwards into its open acreage instead of upwards, unlike Manhattan, which, as an island, had nowhere to go but up.
Characters can’t observe as much when they have to drive. Cities with public transportation and easy walking distances allow characters to experience their environments more: see the sun set, take note of a new bookstore, meet new people, have conversations, and get to know each other.
For me, I feel like the Colorado commute experience would slow down the story too much, whereas in a larger city, a commuting scene can actually propel the story forward. If one character had to drive the car, she would have to pay attention to traffic signals, pedestrians, road rage, wildlife, and more, detracting from the depth of a conversation the character might be able to have with the other passenger(s).
Why not just skip the drive and jump to the arrival at the mountain/river/restaurant/etc.?
Then why not just put the story in Montana or California or New York? Driving is a big thing here. I’ve been commuting since I was sixteen and got my license–to school, to work, home from college a couple times a month, to my friends’ houses–driving is not something I could leave out of a story set in Colorado very easily.
What about A 21st Century Fairy Tale? That’s in Colorado.
True. The story is set in a fictional Colorado mountain town. However, everything is so close together, everybody walks everywhere. That was done on purpose: I wanted the town to resemble BTVS‘s Sunnydale a little bit–where hardly anybody seems to drive except for the adults and rich kids like Cordelia Chase. Because Fairy Tale was such a short story, I didn’t want to bog readers down with commute time.
Maybe in the future, I’ll have a story that fits in with the Colorado culture–a culture of breweries, skiing, and of course, driving–but for now, I’m content to leave my characters in the city–taking the subway, drinking martinis, and doing yoga.
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Terry Odell says
I live in Colorado after over 30 years in Florida. I LOVE it here and have written 3 books since I moved, all set in the state. I don’t think my romantic suspense and mystery books set here waste time driving, or anything else. It’s a matter of storytelling. And I have yet to set a scene where skiing is involved. I may live in a remote area of the mountains, but the beauty of fiction is that I can create whatever I need for my characters. And believe me, the people up here ARE characters. Fodder every time I go out.
Hey Terry, thanks for commenting! In response to your point, I think my aversion to writing Colorado settings is because I’m a suburban kid. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the mountains, though a lot of my friends have and do on a regular basis. I don’t feel like I live in the Colorado that everyone thinks I do. I love living here, but I didn’t grow up with outdoor/nature/mountain experience. I didn’t even grow up with a lot downtown Denver experiences. I don’t have that first-hand experience and passion about those parts of my environment to share with readers, so instead, I share my version of other places I’ve been where the novelty for me seems more engaging and where I feel more comfortable fictionalizing those places. However, I would say my setting choice is about me not wanting to ring false for readers (“that’s not the Colorado I know/remember!”) than anything else. It’s a great place to live, and I am not sure that I could do it justice. Some day, I may bring my stories home, but I don’t think I’m ready yet.
Terry Odell says
I grew up in Los Angeles. Moved to Miami, then Orlando. So I’ve done “urban/suburban” and I find it’s ‘easier’ to set stories somewhere that’s still new to me because I ‘see’ things that natives and long-timers take for granted. I especially love putting a character into the area who’s a newbie like me. I’m not an outdoorsy person, but I love looking out my window and watching the deer.
But you’re exactly right. If your passion doesn’t show through, your readers won’t appreciate any setting.
I agree–I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life, and there probably are things that I don’t notice or appreciate the same way as out-of-town visitors or newcomers would. I remember a couple years ago, it snowed in like the first week of October, and I had a roommate from Washington state who couldn’t believe that it had snowed so early! I love things like that about living here, but they’re not necessarily things that would occur to me while writing. Because of that, I think my descriptions and ingrained perceptions of the area would fall short. On the other hand, I’ve probably learned more about New York not living there and researching it for my stories than I probably would if I had grown up there!
The “fish out of water” story always makes for a little additional entertainment as well, and it’s a good experience as a writer to learn about a new place and try to get a grasp on the local culture without having ever been there, or at least not visited there extensively.