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?