Avoiding Stereotypes When Writing Place (Even If That Place Is Home)

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Tim Gouw

Home is comfortable. It’s inviting and familiar and powerful. It amplifies your voice as you write because you know it. Because it’s home. 

It’s also a trap. 

When setting a story, choosing somewhere you know well makes a ton of sense. What better way to ensure the right amount of verisimilitude? What other way to convince the reader that they are not reading a book or story, but experiencing it? What you can feel and hear and taste in your mind because of your familiarity with the place becomes what the reader can feel and hear and taste. But what happens when your own preconceived notions and deep-set stereotypes about a place seep into your writing? They pass on to your readers. These negative (whether obvious or subtle) suggestions made in passing—because it’s your home and you know it and you don’t recognize the stereotype when it’s right in front of you—spread like a disease. 

That’s the trouble for a writer who sets a story in an intimately familiar place. The writer is lazier with that place than they would otherwise be. Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But hear me out. You’re writing an epic fantasy in which the setting is, of course, completely fictional. You research places around the world. You research customs. You pick and choose and carefully construct your world. In doing so, you (hopefully) avoid tired tropes and stereotypes. But, let’s assume you’re writing something based in your hometown, a place where you might still live. Do you do the same amount of research? Do you take the same precautions you otherwise would when setting your story somewhere unfamiliar?

What happens when your own preconceived notions and deep-set stereotypes about a place seep into your writing? They pass on to your readers.

In most cases, the answer is probably no. 

David Joy, author of Where All Light Tends to Go and The Weight of This World, has been vocal in his disapproval of how some of the writers from Appalachia (Joy being an Appalachian writer himself) misrepresent the people. He is a staunch critic of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and how it portrays people, saying Vance is not their voice

While Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, the same issues surrounding the (potential) misrepresentation of a place apply to fiction. 

But there are ways to combat this. After all, writing about your home provides you with a certain level of access in your fiction. It allows you to take parts of you—and your home undoubtedly is a part of you—and extend them to your story. So, you should write where you know because writing where you know allows you to extend yourself beyond the limitation of writing “what you know.” Here are three ways to continue writing where you know without falling into the trap of self-perpetuation of stereotype. 

Research the Hell Out of Your Home

I spent most of my life living in Southern Arizona, dodging cacti and rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert. And while much of my fiction takes place there, I still research. I read interviews and old newspaper articles. I talk to friends. I read much of what the Arizona Historical Society makes available. It’s all useful. In a region with centuries of Native American history, Mexican and Spanish history, and a history of violence on both sides of the border that runs right through the desert, it’s beyond important to make sure the voice I put out in the world is one I am comfortable with, one that I think represents the people I grew up with as best it can. 

So, queue up the old Google machine. Start there, and read anything you can on your hometown (or the place you’re writing about that is intimate to you). Here are some resources to help: 

Newspapers.com
Not a free service, but if you’re a writer of any kind, it’s worth the cost. With its powerful search features and enormous archives, you’ll be able to cover your historical research at the same time you’re making sure you don’t slip into stereotypical representations of your setting. 

Twitter
Yes, that Twitter. The one that sucks and is awesome and is degrading and is uplifting all at the same time. Use Twitter to connect with people in your region of choice that you don’t already know. Talk to them. Watch the way they interact. Build relationships even if you think you have enough friends from your hometown. 

Local Historical Society
Don’t underestimate how willing (and happy) to help the local historical society will be. They want their locales portrayed as accurately as you do. So search their website, check out their book recommendations, email them. They will help you make sure you understand your setting as well as you think you do. 

Share Early Drafts With Others From That Place

This is where your friends come in handy. When you share a draft of your story or novel, don’t ask your friends from home for feedback on the story. In all likelihood, they will just tell you, “it’s good.” Or, if they’re like my friends, they’ll just say, “yep, those are words.” Instead, you want to be asking folks from your hometown to check you on the way you show their place. The way you portray their home may feel different to them than it does to you when that place is locked up inside your head. 

Read Widely

Cliché alert. But seriously, do it. Read outside of your chosen genre. Read authors with backgrounds that are different from your own. Read books and stories from people of color, from women, from those in the LGBTQ community. 

Then read some more. 

It’s not just about reading works set in the same location as your own, it’s about understanding the way another author uses their voice to convey a place. Read with a critical eye, because as you read widely, you will come across authors who are clearly injecting their own preconceived notions and stereotypes into their works and propelling that out into the world. Understanding what not to do when you see it is just as important as understanding what to do. 

So just read.


Your voice as an author is powerful. Use it wisely. Do the work. Make sure you are representing the place in your story properly, even if you feel like you know that place better than you know yourself. 

Oh, and don’t be a jerk. Care about what you’re doing. Care about other people. Care about getting it right. That helps too.

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Comments

Chris Norbury's picture
Chris Norbury from Minnesota is reading A new book every few days August 16, 2017 - 6:17pm

Well said, especially about reading outside one's genre and don't be a jerk. :-)

 

Chris