Place is important in stories: while plots are (or should be) based on actions, actions have to take place in a place–the very phrase “take place” tells us that.
Be it in Tolstoy’s Russia, Hemingway’s Michigan, Africa, or Spain, or Chandler’s Los Angeles, actions are determined in part by locale. It need not be exotic or glamorous either–most of Susan Straight’s magnificent novels are set in the sere outland of Southern California’s suburban Riverside County, and Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County could have originated from any of a dozen anonymous tracts in Mississippi. Place is determinative of personality as well–the French are French because they’ve lived in France; raise a French baby in Anaheim, and he’ll prefer burgers to fois gras. Everyone carries the scents of terroir.
That said, it’s important for a novelist to create stories that are grounded in a place, but that transcend place. Stories that become universal.
I am beginning to let myself hope I am achieving that, or getting close. My novels have so far been set in Southern California, mostly in the central and eastern portions of Los Angeles: Echo Park, downtown, the old warehouse district by the river. Readers often comment how much they feel the resonances of LA’s land and layout in my stories, and of how they affect the communities that nest there. Many of my readers are from LA, and see LA, as I do, as one of the characters in the tales. This has worried me, as I don’t want a familiarity with the setting to be a predicate of reading my books. And to be sure, most of the actual reviewers of The Dust Will Answer are from beyond Los Angeles.
But my two editors have just gone over the third novel (tentatively titled My Turn to Die), and the extravagantly positive responses I’ve received from them have given me hope…perhaps I have transcended place while remaining true to its spirit and the influence it inevitably bears on the people who live there.
One of my editors lives in the far northeast of the US, the other in Australia. Different mountains, different cities, different weather, different dialects. But I got through to them!
I was pretty nervous waiting to hear. But it looks as though a year of work has not been wasted. This book, whatever its title will ultimately be, is the best I’ve done yet.
Now to buckle down and grind through a third draft. There’s always something that can be made better. It’s up to me to find it–before the readers do. That’s my place as a writer.