(A belated Hump Day Hmmm…)
It’s hard to be a writer when you’re eighteen years old. You’re old enough to have outgrown the universal desire to write children’s books (the one that possesses anyone who has read Little Women and yearned to be Jo March). You want to write something grown-uppish, or if that sounds too intimidating, at least a Harlequin. (Is it time for me to switch to the first person and past tense yet?) There’s only one problem: at eighteen, you have virtually no experience of the grown-up world. By default, your heroine has to be a high-school teacher, and that still leaves the problem of setting. Harlequin romances, like blogs, have much to gain from being set in an intriguing locale.
Good settings, in light realist fiction, are as follows:
- London, England (as in Bridget Jones’ Diary)
- Chicago (as in the movie version of High Fidelity)
- New York (as in everything – but just for fun let’s say Sex in the City)
Serious fiction can take place in small-town or rural settings – anything in the South will do, and even small-town Ontario can work if you can shake off the influence of Alice Munro. But if you’re going to write a TV-show/book/blog about nothing, it’s essential that all that nothingness take place in an upscale and/or gritty urban environment. Crappy settings, in light realist fiction, are as follows:
- suburban Ohio
- the MidWest, post-1880
- London, Ontario
I’ve always felt handicapped as a writer by the blandness of my hometown. From the point of view of outsiders, I’ve been told, London is a great place to live. It has a vibrant strip of shops and restaurants downtown, fun annual summer festivals, and several residential areas with lovely Victorian architecture. There are markets full of fresh-picked fruit and corn in the summer, and there’s skating in Victoria Park in the winter. The university is as renowned for its beautiful landscaping as it is for its ivy and limestone.
Still, though. Living in London is the definition of boring. At one time, London boasted the most mall-space per capita of any city in North America. That has changed now only because of the advent of big-box stores. When I moved to Kingston as a university student I was enchanted by the atmosphere of its narrow tree-lined streets. Beautifully renovated homes rubbed shoulders with student ghetto dumps, all within walking distance of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted at the Chinese Laundry café. Each September, the town was flooded with frosh wearing the traditional uniform of purple-paint-spattered coveralls, along with cadets from the military college in their mandatory dress blues and pillbox hats.
I could write a novel, were I so inclined, set in Kingston – London is another matter.
I’m so accustomed to thinking of London as bland and white-bread that this perception has become astonishingly resistant to the influence of experience. London is a culturally diverse city, and my neighbourhood even more so. Yesterday as I drove to the grocery store, I saw a family waiting for the bus: a small boy in a stroller held in place by his father, and a mother sitting cross-legged on the ground, her spine ramrod straight. They were the best argument against miscegenation I’ve ever seen, their skin arresting in its glossy blackness. I completed my errand quickly, and when I drove past five minutes later they were still there, the mother standing up now, resplendent in her long red African dress cut along straight, simple lines. She stood tall, in the late stages of pregnancy, and looked so gorgeous that for a moment the bus stop and grocery store faded and I felt something that was oddly akin to homesickness.
These are the people in my neighbourhood.