perils of the local, problems of the specific

I’m reading a novel by a friend right now. I’m not sure if it could be considered a young adult novel or not; the material in it is very dark and difficult. (I’m also told that it has a fantastic or supernatural or speculative resolution, but I don’t want to know about that until I reach it myself.)

In any case, it is set in my hometown of Kansas City, and there are loads and loads of references to specific places and things here. I’m not sure I like that.

This is something I’ve wondered about for a while. Just how valuable is a specific local reference to a work of fiction? How many readers beyond the handful of locals will even get the reference, much less appreciate the nuance that the reference provides? For example, one of the actual high schools in this novel is Shawnee Mission East. Have you ever heard of it? Do you know that it is the place where the kids from the ultra rich families go? (Funny, true story: many years ago Shawnee Mission East had a “hippie day” and the kids made posters with “peace signs” on them only they mistakenly used the Mercedes Benz logo instead. These kids knew what a Mercedes Benz logo looked like. You pretty much couldn’t make a more laughable mistake than that.) But anyway, do you need the specific name of an actual high school to carry that sense to the reader? How many readers are going to appreciate the reference? How many are going to just rush right past that? And how many are going to wonder why the school would have such an odd name?

The novel makes reference to restaurants and places around town that are now closed or changed. And in any case, many (most) of these references don’t contribute to the understanding of the story. Does it really add to the story to say the kids went to a specific restaurant before prom or just that they went to dinner (where the boys all got steaks and the girls all got salads, right?)? Little things like this can date a story or tighten its focus so it is meaningful to a smaller group of readers. At least that’s how I see it. And if so, why would I want to restrict the range of my meaning or readership? Why wouldn’t I strive to make every detail contribute to a more universal application of my story? If I were reading a story set in, say, Baltimore, a city I’ve never been to, would I feel I’m actually missing something by not knowing a lot of specific local references brought up in it? (The answer, by the way, is yes.)

In some ways it’s like the business of describing the clothing characters are wearing. In my experience, it almost never matters what kind of clothes a character has on in any given scene. Sure, if you want to show your character as funky or sophisticated or messy, then maybe clothes are the way to do it. But if a character just happens to enter a scene, why slow down the narrative with superfluous detail like that? Generally, it reads like more noise than signal to me. (Yes, I know there is a school of thought saying you must give your reader details so they can picture the character, but to that I say balderdash! I think most readers see and dress your characters just fine on their own, often despite how you describe them.)

In one of my Fathers and Sons stories, I have the young father working at a pretty terrible job in order to provide for his family. It’s not the work or company that is bad; it’s the people he must work with. They’re coarse and crude and earthy, and they’re unlike any people he’d known to that point in his tender years. He’s depressed to find that the world is actually like this and that he can seemingly do no better as a provider than to work amidst it. The work itself involves loading trucks, and I’ve based my descriptions of it on my son’s work for several months loading delivery trucks for UPS. I considered including specific reference to that company in the story. It would give some real-world grounding to the story. And UPS is more of a universal than the name of a specific high school or local restaurant, so a wider range of readers would get the reference.

But what value does it add? Not much, as far as I can tell. It’s more important to show that the boy must do exhausting, back-breaking work loading trucks rather than loading a specific company’s trucks. Further, what problems would it create? I’m depicting some unpleasant people my protagonist is forced to work with. Would UPS want its name associated with such people? Might it object to my use of its name? Would it protest that surely such people do not load its delivery trucks? (I’ve heard far worse things than I use in the story, and actually, in my story, these coarse people do a fine job loading their trucks; it’s their personal lives/values that I’m contrasting with my protagonist’s.)

My stories in this cycle will range across thirty years, and I’ve thought about bringing in references to actual world events, politics, pop songs, and such to give the reader an anchor to when the story takes place. But I’m not sure I see much value in that either. First of all, these are character stories, not stories of a time or place. As I’ve written them for now, a reference to Reagonomics or Duran Duran or the Challenger shuttle would be intrusive. I think I’ve made the grandfather-father-son depictions sufficiently clear for the reader to understand the “when” of the story as much as that needs to be established. (And I’ve created a grid of dates when each story takes place, how old each character is in that story, and so on to keep myself straight. It’s an oddly quantitative experience on my part.)

So I’m torn between trying to keep my stories more “universal” and giving them more detail. It’s better, I think, to put in the kind of detail that has the boy driving home after work, sweating miserably because he can’t afford to fix the air conditioner in his beat up car rather than list the music on the radio as he drives. The former serves the story; the latter serves, what?

And like so many other times when I have a question about the craft, I look to the experts. I can’t say that I really see a lot of specific references to local times or places in what I think is well done fiction.

So, I’ve taken up your time with more than a thousand words on this subject, and I still don’t think I’ve really expressed my point. But what do you think? Are specific local references helpful? hurtful? valuable? superfluous?

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5 Comments on “perils of the local, problems of the specific”

  1. christophergronlund Says:

    I tend to give people a sense of where something is and leave the real world behind. Sure, if something’s set in Paris and the Eiffel Tower is mentioned (with reason), it’s universal enough. But to mention a tiny bistro by name and mention streets other than the Champs Elysees reads like somebody digging through Google for information. Make me feel the place.

    My last finished novel takes place in a made-up town in northern Wisconsin. People familiar with the area might enjoy trying to figure out where in northern Wisconsin it might be, but I often make up places or, at the very least, just shoot for the feel of a real place without all the named details.

    As far as character descriptions…in the last novel, I don’t think there’s much of a description of the main character at all. I got a bit self indulgent with describing an old wrestler, but I’ve found that people are going to see characters a certain way regardless of my efforts. With the protagonist especially, I tend to not be very descriptive because I want the reader to create what they want the protagonist to look like in the hope that they’ll like them even more because they had say in what they look like — whether they know it or not.

    Sometimes (most times, for me) too much detail takes something away from a story. Years ago, a friend wrote a great story about a widower who takes up bird watching as a way to try moving on. It takes place at Craters of the Moon National Park…no problem with that because there’s a reason for it, and it’s not all description. But…it was obvious that he researched camera gear. He didn’t just mention types of filters (polarizing, for example), he mentioned them by brand name and size. So instead of saying “He put his camera on the tripod,” it was more like, “He put the AF-S Nikkor 18-300mm lens on the body of his Nikon D4 digital single lens reflex camera and then used a quick release plate to secure the rig to his Manfrotto 229 Super Pro Head on his Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod.” One moment, a devastating passage about loss; the next, tech talk that destroyed the moment.

    I may be biased about description because I’d rather focus on emotion in stories. But, at the very least, know you’re not alone…

  2. Annam Says:

    I think mentioning places/clothing/specifics can be important if there is context provided to give non-locals a chance at understanding the narrative. I do agree that just throwing references into a book can be distracting, unless you are aiming for a highly specific novel. In New Mexico, many novels are very localized, and I think they are targeting readers only in this state.

  3. Averil Dean Says:

    I only care about good, rich description. The names of places and brands and whatever are irrelevant to me, and I agree they can be distracting if overused.


  4. Specific local names are good in moderation, but if overdone they risk alienating the outside reader. If they’re to be used, the writer needs to subtly add clues that explain the context to non locals. Otherwise thery’re just a cheap shortcut for implying deeper meaning – like your high school example.

  5. Brian Keaney Says:

    I try to avoid all references that seem either ephemeral or inexplicable to someone without specialist knowledge. I think you can always make up a generic substitute.


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