At the monthly MNSpec writer’s group meeting, I submitted several chapters of my Urban Fantasy manuscript Evil Looks Good for the group critique. The bulk of the story occurs in Minneapolis and the surrounding area. My choice of story location struck one critiquer as concerning. She said she didn’t have a problem with me writing a story based in Minneapolis. (“Write what you know,” she said.) But she made it clear that others would.
I quote the following directly from her written critique (All emphasis, caps and quotes are hers)
…be prepared for this to be a tougher sell to NY agents/publishers. Have a damn good reason why it HAS to be in Minneapolis, and can’t be in NY or LA or somewhere more “exotic”.
She also informed me that people from the East Coast and the West Coast believe people in the Midwest to be narcissistic about their homeland. I think she called it the trait of “Midwest Self-Importance”.
Pot. Kettle. Black. Anyway, to sum up her general points:
People living in the Midwest think that the Midwest is important
NY editors do not agree. To them, the Midwest is not important, interesting, or exotic, and stories need a reason to occur there.
NY editors prefer stories set in NY/LA or other “exotic” locations, unless there is a real reason to have them happen elsewhere.
A Study In Narcissism
While driving back from the critique, I decided to give her advice a charitable interpretation.
“New York editors! What a bunch of narrow-minded fill-in-the-blanks!” (Yes, I actually said “fill-in-the-blanks”) “Who do they think they are, putting down the Midwest? Flyover Land my ass. Who cares what a bunch of pretentious New Yorkers and Californians think…”
That’s about as far as my ‘charitable interpretation’ got when the world hit me with one of those grandly ironic and disconcerting moments that the Zen Buddhists try so hard to cultivate. I was treating those editors EXACTLY the same way she told me they would treat me.
That, my friends, is the sound of one hand clapping.
So after that refreshing micro-enlightenment, I was able to a attempt an even more charitable interpretation.
Midwestern pride aside, few will disagree that New York and Los Angeles have a sense of local self-importance that pretty much trumps all others. Write about yourself much? Make movies about yourself much? So perhaps we can chalk up all this talk of local pride to the more global reality that everyone thinks that where they choose to live is important.
But the existence of the term “Flyover Land” makes it clear the coastal cities look down on the In-Between as someplace you fly over to get somewhere important. In retaliation, the Midwest adopted the term “Third Coast” shows that Midwesterners think they are just as important as the bookends protecting them from the oceans.
On reflection, I’d say it isn’t so much that the Midwest has a case of Self-Importance. It’s more true to say that the Midwesterners don’t buy into NY and LA treating the Midwest as unimportant. It’s easy to see how this can be mis-perceived as arrogance.
Seriously. Why would you set your fiction story in Minneapolis?
I could have set my story anywhere. New York, Los Angeles, Pluto… location cost me nothing. So why Minneapolis?
Because NY and LA aren’t as exotic as you think
By definition, “exotic” is something we don’t see or hear much of. That pretty much un-exotics NY and LA. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m tired of stories that happen in LA/NY.
San Francisco and Washington, DC too. Yawn.
Because diversity rules, Baby
It makes me sad that American media is dominated by so few cities. There’s more to France than just Paris. There’s more to Germany than just Berlin. And there’s more to the United States than just New York and Los Angeles. It’s like someone judging your entire high-school graduating class based on meeting the prom king and queen.
Ick. Embrace diversity.
Because Minneapolis isn’t as un-exotic as you think.
For a city with more art per-capita than NY or LA, Minneapolis is severely under-represented in media, and I’m doing my part to help correct that.
I chose Minneapolis as the setting for my story because it’s the Cinderella of the U.S.A. – a gem of a city, under-valued and under-appreciated by its wicked, coastal stepsisters.
Oh yes, and we have the Mall of America too. Just sayin’.
Because Location is a Spice
Can you imagine the Spider-Man movies taking place in Chicago? St. Paul? Milwaukee? Yep. Would that ruin them? Nope. In many stories like these, the location is just a backdrop that adds flavor, but isn’t directly tied to the story.
Am I saying that a city is a city is a city? Sometimes. I am saying you’d be hard pressed to tell one downtown from another during a ninja sword fight against giant, carnivorous, poisonous, exploding spider-leeches.
There are examples where the story location is tied to the story and can’t be changed. If your story is about the President of the United States at work, then your story has to include the location of Washington, DC. But more often than not, the location can be just a spice in the stew. An essential ingredient, but there are many to choose from.
Because of the Miracle of Find/Replace
Let’s suppose that there are editors out there who love Love LOVE New York and hate Hate HATE Murderapolis Minneapolis. Fair enough.
But any editor with two IQ points to rub together will be familiar with the terminology “Find/Replace”. This refers to the ability of word-processing software to take any particular word, term, or phrase and replace it with anything you like.
With this in mind, would an editor really reject your story because the main character has red hair and not blonde/black? Drinks RC cola instead of Coke/Pepsi? Lives in Minneapolis instead of NY/LA? Doubtful, unless the location is locked into place for some reason.
Good editors have X-ray vision. They need to see right into the guts of the story, and if the heart and liver are good, but they don’t like the spleen, then the editor knows it can be replaced. If an editor loves your plot, pacing and dialog, but doesn’t like your protagonist’s eye-color, occupation or hometown… Find/Replace. If they can’t see the story inside the story, then I don’t really want them as my editor. Would you?
Because authors should “Write What You Know”
We’ve all heard the writer’s advice to “write what you know.” To be fair, the critiquer I mentioned earlier did admit to this herself, and suggested a ‘solution’ for polluting my story with the Midwest. She said there has to be a reason that the story takes place in Minneapolis and couldn’t take place anywhere else.
This is really good advice. Something all writers should think about. Reminds me of the advice to treat the location like a character in your story.
But my story could take place in any city, so why would I research the geography and climate of Los Angeles when I can write pages of geography and climate about the city I know?
Stories have to happen someplace, and one of every author’s goals is to make the reader ‘see’ that place. But is the success or failure of a story tied to where it takes place? Will it really make your story a hard sell because some N.Y. editors don’t know how to spell Minneapolis? I don’t think so.
As a reader, I care more about the feel of the location than the location itself. A location is important. THE location… not as much. Hells, if Stephen King can write stories based in Bangor, Maine, then I can write stories based in Minneapolis.
I chose Minneapolis as the setting for my story because it’s the Cinderella of the U.S.A. – a gem of a city, under-valued and under-appreciated by its wicked, coastal stepsisters .
Do I have a case of “my hometown is important too?” Clearly. But doesn’t everyone? What do you think?