By Fran Hawthorne
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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I Meant to Tell You will be published in November 2022 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
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Check out her Website. www.hawthornewriter.com
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