Writing About Your Hometown

Stephen King writes about sleepy New England towns. Candace Bushnell writes about New York. Audrey Niffenegger wrote about Chicago. And the bestselling authors I’ve shared a zip code with – Bret Lott and Sue Monk Kidd – write about Charleston. When writers “write what they know,” setting is often the first thing they zoom to.

On the other hand, Robert Jordan lived in Charleston all his life, but The Wheel of Time didn’t involve Rainbow Row. Between Lott and Jordan, I’m the latter. Not just because I’m a fantasy author, but because there’s something awkward about setting my books in Charleston. It feels too personal, too self-inserty, especially because my characters can be very different from me. They could experience a side of the city that I’ve never seen. I have enough friends and coworkers to know that Charleston is what you make of it, and you can find any adventure you wish to have. Charleston can be the setting of a cozy, beachy romance, or it can be the setting of late-night college hijinks.

(Personally, I’d like to see the wild side of Charleston in books/movies. Nicholas Sparks does not have a monopoly on this town! Then again, I guess that’s what Southern Charm is, and we all wish that show would go away.)

I feel like I simultaneously know Charleston very well and not enough. I don’t know Charleston as much as I know “Michelle’s Charleston,” a subjectivity that does not lend itself well to setting. Plus, I think it would be distracting for my local beta readers, the same way it is for actors to watch themselves in movies.

At the same time, I am tempted to start off Paradisa in Charleston for one perfect reason – Clara. Clara is an engineering student. She is the daughter of a retired Marine commander. Her brother Connor was a Navy SEAL. The girl has soldier veins, yet I don’t want to put her in the military. I want her to be technical minded with mere undertones of that gung-ho spirit.

The only engineering school in Charleston is The Citadel.

It would be the perfect school for her to go to, and it would give her character an excuse for resilience that she sorely needs. She could have that soldier spirit instilled in her while still being the “smart” one, and not being hampered by actual military service. After college, she could become an officer, or she could leave the military life behind. She hasn’t chosen which, and that internal struggle could be a subplot. Simply changing the setting to Charleston would solve so much of Clara’s character that I can’t resist. Plus, since Connor is a chef, it’s more believable that he could eek out a bearable living at one of our award-winning restaurants downtown.

Connor and Clara’s hometown is mostly irrelevant because they leave it in Chapter Two. I think my knowledge of Charleston does more good than harm in this case. But I could never set an entire book here. Making a few references to street names and schools in the opening chapter is one thing, but navigating my characters through the Peninsula for 300 pages would grind my nerves. I’d be so worried about getting minute details wrong, or presenting my town in some incorrect or negative light. It’s funny how I don’t have that problem when writing about places I’ve never even been, but maybe my attachment to Charleston means I handle its presentation with extra care.

Do you enjoy writing about your hometown, or do you prefer to play in a setting that’s foreign to you?

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8 thoughts on “Writing About Your Hometown

  1. I love writing about my home town. I grew up in sleepy, small Mid-western towns in IL, a little far off from Chicago. My first novel was set in a fictional town in Maine, but it still had that small town isolated feel. I think it’s easier to write about places you know. And I think it works, otherwise there’s a lot of research involved. I would LOVE to go to Italy one day, just so I can use it as a setting. :)

    • Ha, I have written two different novels that go to the Vatican. I want to go so badly in real life!

      I could probably write a Charleston-esque (or Hanahan-esque, which was the small town subburb I actually grew up in) town with authenticity, but I’d feel more comfortable fictionalizing it. That way, I could draw from what I know without sweating the small stuff. I really do love my town and want to share it with people, but if I wrote a Charleston novel, I’d have to go in thinking “these characters are Charlestonians, so they need to be written like Charlestonians.” There’s a very distinct personality type that lives here, and I can’t suspend my own disbelief that Connor and Clara would be natives (but their origin setting is pretty arbitrary in this book, as you know.)

      So perhaps it’s not a matter of setting so much as it’s a matter of the characters’ relation to it. I could do Charleston justice in a memoir or a down to earth thing, or something based on a friend’s life, but if I’m starting with characters who don’t have that “Charleston personality,” I’ve almost screwed myself out of using Charleston as a setting *nod*

  2. Setting your writing in your hometown is a lot easier than writing in a foreign setting for me. When you write about your hometown you know exactly how long it takes your characters to get from point A to point B. You know the name of the street that runs in front of the library/grocery store.
    So I guess you can say I prefer writing in my hometown. However, my current WIP is set in Seattle, which is about an hour South from my hometown. And I don’t know Seattle well enough to know street names or anything. But I have written things set in the town I grew up in…and it was much easier than doing all the research for someplace wasn’t familiar with.

    • It’s definetly harder to get a setting right just based on research. I like using settings that I’m quite familiar with, or my friends know well, but aren’t home to me. For example, some characters live in Clemson, South Carolina, which is where my boyfriend went to college. I visited him multiple times there, I know Clemson well enough to write about it, and he can help me with the details. But I’m not enamored enough with Clemson to describe it like a local.

      I think one of the problems with knowing street names/specific restaurants/etc is that including some of those details in a book can be flatout distracting. I’m afraid I would have a tendency to overdescribe and just….vomit up details that make the reader very aware of the narrator. Almost like I, as the narrator, would act like I’m giving a tour instead of presenting my characters as locals who don’t notice those kinds of details. That’s just me though, ha! I know I’m too proud of my town and I probably can’t be trusted writing about it, lol.

      • I know what you mean. Not saying you have to describe every detail as you know it, but it’s helpful in the writing process for your own reference. It’s easier to picture things in your head as you’re writing when you know your way around the setting so you can be like ‘does this work?’ That’s what I like about writing about my hometown. But I can see your point about over describing. Makes perfect sense. :)

  3. I think you can also write about a real place and have the problem of not getting the setting right which is distracting to those who live there. Ok, this is in a movie but remember the groans when they referenced Ft. Sumpter in GI Joe? As one of your beta readers, I could totally get behind Clara and Conner being from Charleston. It makes sense and cleans up some of the issues we had with the situation they were in. Personally, I have a Steampunkish story in my head that would be set in Charleston.

    • This is pretty much exactly what I mean! I wouldn’t want to make an error that’s distracting to locals, although I’m more likely to do that while writing about a foreign place, I guess.

      Historical novels are fair game IMO. I wouldn’t mind writing about historic Charleston because that’s not something anyone living has experienced first hand. And if it’s steampunk, anything goes already.

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