I was at a great World Fantasy Con panel called “Fantasy and the Midwestern Heartland." At the time, I was convinced I was deeply steeped in the Midwestern writer tradition. I mean, duh, right? I’ve lived in Ohio since 1995 (as both a college student and permanent resident). I married an Ohio native. A rural-Ohio native, even. And, I've even voted in every Presidential election here since Clinton/Dole.
But no … After the panel was done, I realized that I am still masquerading.
Perhaps this is why, when I worked at the hospital, every single patient at accused me of having an English accent. And they weren’t the only ones. The families I worked with in the Community also thought so, and so did some of my colleagues. I don’t, for the record. I haven’t lived in London since 1995, and I didn't have an accent when I lived there.
Perhaps this is why my Ohio friends sometimes say, “That must be a New York thing,” “You and your weird Britishisms,” “Stop talking East Coast!” (My family moved to New York some time ago.)
Still, I'm too Midwestern for the East Coast, and too New York for Ohio. I'm displaced; rootless. I moved seven times before the age of 18, the first time at three weeks old — from the city I was born in to Cairo, Egypt. Then on to Moscow,* Colorado, Atlanta, Chicago, London …
*I lived in Moscow from 1979 to 1981. I have so many stories.
BUT JORDAN HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?! Oh wow, I am so glad you asked, because it all really does.
I see so many writers identifying themselves by place: “I am a Florida writer,” “I am a Midwestern writer,” “I am an English writer,” “I am a Southern writer.” But I have no such place. So what am I supposed to do?
Hollow-Eyed Boys was set in Southern Ohio, but it could easily be picked up and dropped in Georgia, or Indiana, or North Dakota. There’s nothing rooting it to Ohio, or even marking it as quintessentially Midwestern. But the important setting of Hollow-Eyed Boys wasn't Southern Ohio. It was the trailer park.
I write setting first. Every finished piece of mine has come to me first as a place. For Hollow-Eyed Boys, it was the trailer park. For the piece coming out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies this December, it was a building I saw in Arizona. For my first published piece, it was a village of corvids. For other, yet-to-sell, pieces: a swamp, the Panama Canal, a space station, a magical desert, a suburb on a 2nd Earth world.
Failed pieces have come concept first or character first. I try to bash and I squish and I smash the characters and concept into place and they just never sit right until they sit abandoned on my hard drive, forgotten, for now.
Why does setting first work for me, as a displaced writer? I have an idea ...
Setting is important because, as a writer with no roots, my stories have to have roots, my characters have to have roots, my narrative has to have roots. Setting is my primary character, and everything revolves around it. To the point where if you pick up the characters and the narrative and plop it somewhere else, the entire piece falls apart.
Every writing book will tell you: Setting Has To Be A Character. But for me, I can’t help but to make one of the primary characters. I’ll be sitting around, having a conversation, and then suddenly think, “I want to write a story about a swamp!” Then over the next week, the rest of the story will coalesce, and then I’ll spend however long writing it. “I want to write a story about a space station!” See that? It’s always “I want to write a story ABOUT a ..”
That’s pretty key, for me. So, in a way, Hollow-Eyed Boys is about that trailer park. My weird western is about that building. My first published piece was about that village of corvids.
Sure, the stories have a lot more going on than their place, but their place anchors them, in the way that most people are anchored to their home. As a person who is drifting, anchorless, all my pieces are anchored to be about the places they're in. This is so important to me that I get frustrated when I’m reading and I can’t feel characters inhabiting the place.
Try this with your favorite book, TV show, or movie. If you take it and set it somewhere else, does the story still work? In what ways does it work? In what ways doesn't it? Now do it with your own work. Ask the same questions.
Not having a place is unsettling, and not in a HBO Westworld way. By the way, I’m 2 for 2 on "WTF Bernard?!" theories for that show. Just FYI. Feeling pretty good about that.