read around the rainbow, writing

Read Around the Rainbow: setting stories where you live?

The theme for this month’s Read Around the Rainbow posts, suggested by Fiona Glass, is about setting – specifically, whether we set our books someplace we live or have lived in. And I’m afraid this one’s going to be a bit of an equivocal answer, because the honest answer really is, it depends on your definition!

I live in Southern California, which is also where I grew up—not in the same town where we currently live, mind you. And definitely not Los Angeles—more one of those beachside surf-and-sunshine towns, let’s say, sort of like Veronica Mars’ Neptune but even smaller (and less, you know, murder-y) than that, but with some of the same dynamics. (Also, and this is a thing that always baffles non-Southern-Californian people, nobody, at least not where I grew up, ever wants to drive into LA! It looks close on a map, and it sort of is, but unless you have a very specific reason, it’s usually just too much of a pain—the traffic alone, good gods above, no—and not really worth it. Especially not when we always had our own perfectly good beaches, a nice downtown, and no touristy crowds, thanks.)

Which is a roundabout way of saying, some specific stories of mine—things like “The Arch-Mage’s Firebird,” or “Bookwyrm”—absolutely do use that laid-back(ish) California beach town setting. (The ice-cream shop in the former is actually very specific if you know it, but not if you don’t, I think, and obviously the real-life version isn’t next to a magician’s shop…or is it…) And I do love water; I think that’s evident in everything from the ocean setting of Cadence and the Pearl to Colby’s love of rain in the Character Bleed books. But—

Really mostly I think it’s more about…large swirls of inspiration blurring together? A lot of what I write is fantasy to some extent—Magician, Cadence, The Featherbed Puzzle, even the fictional historic estate where Jason and Colby are filming Steadfast—and so I’m not using any particular specific real-life setting; it’s about what the story needs it to be. But, again—

I do think it’s always hard to disentangle experiences and influences, and I am by training a medievalist (more or less) who’s done scholarly work on (and been to) medieval European locations and cultures (that’s a very broad and not entirely accurate description but it’ll work for this point). So, am I using things I’m familiar with? Yes, to an extent, which I think is maybe the point of this month’s question about settings and familiarity? Have I walked around historic estate gardens in England, or climbed Arthur’s Seat? Yes, I have—though I don’t live there, and I am inescapably, fortunately or unfortunately, American. Is Gareth’s home, in Magician, very heavily late-medieval Scotland? Well, yes—I do love Edinburgh, and I want to go back—but also no, not exactly, because I needed it to be some other things as well. (Averene is to some extent France, if you haven’t guessed from the names of towns and kings, but again, also kind of not, and also maybe a little bit England, but Norman England.) (I mean, I also got a Margaret Cavendish reference in there. We’re playing with time and space a bit. But it is a fantasy.)

(Speaking of familiarity, there are usually a decent amount of sneaky a- specific medievalist references, and b- classic punk rock references, in most things I write. Bonus points if you spot them.)

I suppose familiarity is a good word for it—a lot of my settings use elements that, yes, I’m familiar with, but accuracy or real-world analogues isn’t necessarily the concern, if that makes sense? Something like what Alexis Hall said recently about writing historical romance and historical accuracy versus specificity—most historical romance is alternate-universe to an extent anyway, so accuracy is the wrong question; it’s more about specificity, details, world-building, versus direct reproduction.

Which has sort of wandered away from the question of settings and places we’ve actually lived, hasn’t it? (Also, how do we define that? How long a time equals “living” someplace? Would a semester or a year of study abroad in the UK count? Not that that’s the same as moving there, since we always knew we were coming “home” again…)

Now I suspect this has devolved into rambling, so it’s perhaps a good stopping point! There’s probably more to say about cultural contexts and experiences and how you can live in but not necessarily know all of a place, and history, and character points of view and how they might experience places differently, but this has already become decently long, so—as always, thanks for reading!

And you can find all the other setting-related posts by fellow webring authors here:

Ofelia Grand

Holly Day

Fiona Glass

Amy Spector

Addison Albright

Lillian Francis

Nell Iris

Ellie Thomas

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