Friday Speak Out!: WHEN YOUR SETTING IS A FAMOUS CITY THAT READERS THINK THEY KNOW (BUT THEY DON’T)

Friday, August 12, 2022
By Fran Hawthorne

For a number of plot-related reasons, my new novel I Meant to Tell You had to be set in and near Washington DC. But almost as soon as I began moving my characters around on the ground, I panicked.

Where would one character take her daughter for fun? Where would a couple go on a date? In the last year before the pandemic, Destination DC (the district’s official tourism Website) reported more than 24 million visitors. How could I possibly make such a popular venue seem fresh and interesting? No matter where I placed my characters, scores of readers would either pick out inaccurate details, or just be bored.

Then add to that list all the readers who have zero interest in politics. Assuming that my book must be a political thriller, they might well ignore it. (While my novel centers on a kidnapping, there are no conspiracies to kill the president, stage a coup, or even mastermind an election. Sorry.)

I settled on three strategies to maintain readers’ attention:

First, I asked friends who’ve lived in the area in recent years for suggestions about little-known spots where they might take out-of-towners – the kind you don’t find in most guidebooks. I was deluged with intriguing ideas. They ranged from the tiny (the weird Temperance Fountain, once called “the city’s ugliest statue,” which used to spout ice water for both people and horses from its intertwined dolphins) to the opulent (a tour of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms in the State Department, jam-packed with porcelain platters and silver tea sets, oil portraits and landscapes, upholstered sofas and mahogany desks…)

Next, I asked those same friends about ordinary life. Do the buses stop running in a severe snowstorm? Where’s the up-and-coming bar scene? What types of ethnic restaurants were popular in the early 2000s? In what neighborhood would penny-counting newlyweds typically find an apartment? How about a middle-class family, or a yuppie couple? These are the details that make any setting come alive, famous or not.

Finally, I decided to embrace some of the “tourist traps” and make them a part of the book. After all, how can you place a novel in Washington DC and ignore the Lincoln Memorial or the Smithsonian? Thus, for instance, two important characters “meet cute” at the display of the Wright Brothers’ Flyer at the National Air and Space Museum. In addition to providing a nice change from the usual Starbucks encounter, the location also offered insight into the two characters. A person who chooses to visit a historic airplane on her lunch break is very different from someone who spends that time working out in the gym.

I don’t know if these unsung details will bring more tourists rushing to visit Washington DC. But I hope they will make non-DC readers feel a little bit like they’ve actually been there.

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Fran Hawthorne has been writing novels since she was four years old, although she was sidetracked for a few decades by journalism. Her eight nonfiction books -- mainly about consumer activism, the drug industry, and the financial world -- include Ethical Chic (Beacon Press), named one of the best business books of 2012 by Library Journal, and Pension Dumping (Bloomberg Press), a Foreword magazine 2008 Book of the Year. She's also been an editor or regular contributor for The New York Times, Business Week, Fortune, and many other publications. But Fran never abandoned her true love: Her debut novel The Heirs was published in 2018, and now I Meant to Tell You will be published in November 2022 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press.

Follow her on Twitter @hawthornewriter
And Instagram @hawthornewriter
Check out her Website. www.hawthornewriter.com


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Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!
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2 comments:

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

The list of things we end up researching when we work on a project is endless. How lucky that you had people with the knowledge you needed for your story!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this piece, what a splendid idea for an effective way to color the background of my stories! https://www.medium.com/@karlenejoseph

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