The setting for my first mystery was an imaginary place called Bridgeton, Maryland that included my memories of the Catholic Church in Prescott,Wisconsin, with some variations of course; the steep streets of Missouri Valley, Iowa; and a street in downtown Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Some people say that using a particular place makes writing easier except that when you do use a real place you better get all the details right. If you don’t, you’ll get all those letters about what’s wrong after you publish the pi.
I’ve found it helpful to be able to visualize my setting when I’m writing. After a while, all these different places blended together and I could see my imaginaryBridgeton.
Creating characters out of thin air was a good habit. Always creating a setting is more troublesome. The novel I was working on when I was in school was set in Chicago in 1975. I had to do a lot of research to make sure my details were correct.
I have worried about using the name of that store that might have stiffed me and I’m prohibited from writing about where I work by our ethics rules. Will I mind getting letters from people if I get a detail wrong about 1975 Chicago? Maybe, but that would also mean that I’d had the good luck to have the book published.
My writing does include something from myself, a belief I’ve held, a question that I haven’t answered. For me, the only writing I’ve done that’s included anything biographical before this book, has been my poetry and a few of those women-working stories. Stories where I’m the main character or about situations that I’ve actually experienced would all sound the same in the end.
I like the idea of saying that writing what you know is shorthand for an idea that came up in my workshop, writing from some inner truth in addition to using factual data from my reading. If you don’t believe in the theme behind your piece, can you convince anyone else that a story is real? One of my inner truths is that I believe that for all of the talk about individuality in our society, almost everything around us is trying to force us into the same mold whether it’s working for a living or an advertisement telling us that we’re missing something if we don’t buy their product. The challenge is to get along and still know who we are. I imagine that’s kind of a common theme among people interested in art.
The other story I workshopped in this class was experimental. Kind of a strange, how do you move from memory to memory in an interesting way, type of technique. I’d decided to make my young black man see “white shit” instead of having a double skip on the page when he watched himself at different ages. My teacher told me it was definitely an original idea. So, why didn’t he like me? Guess I’ll never know.