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?