NYC should not be a default setting

As much as I love reading and writing about NYC as it was before hipsters and millionaires took over, when normal people could afford to live there and apartments were spacious enough to comfortably raise families, and watching films depicting the same golden age, I’ve really cooled to it as a setting in general. It feels like a lazy default instead of consciously chosen as the best possible setting.

1. Writers who set their movies, TV shows, and books there because they live(d) there need to find a new profession or learn how to write better. Can you truly not think outside the familiar?

2. It implies lack of imagination and research. How about San Antonio, Savannah, Miami, Des Moines, Denver, Milwaukee, Barnstable, or Pittsburgh?

3. If you’re writing about immigrants, have you ever considered researching the many other cities with large immigrant communities? Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, and Seattle are but a few of many. If you’re bound and determined to set it in NYC anyway, think outside the Lower East Side!

4. It insultingly implies no other city has a good art or music scene, worthwhile schools, quality museums, or quirky people free to be themselves.

5. Your characters might not be apartment people. It’s one thing to live in an apartment or boardinghouse temporarily, when there’s no choice, but longterm is a whole other story. If your characters, e.g., enjoy gardening, have multiple large dogs, or thrive on being close to nature (beyond overlooking a park), they need another city.

6. Your characters might prefer being big fish in a small pond instead of little fish in a huge pond, constantly competing to rise to the top.

7. Unless your contemporary characters are rich enough to live in a luxury apartment, townhouse, or old estate in a neighborhood like Victorian Flatbush, they’ll either have to squeeze a large family into a small apartment or severely limit family size.

8. It perpetuates the ridiculously romanticised image of New York as the best of all possible cities, a magical place where all dreams come true, a nonstop parade of fun and excitement, a concentration of creative energy and intellectual power like none other.

9. Can your characters handle a long commute to work and school? Think about when they’ll have to wake up, what time they arrive home, and how many subways or buses they’ll need to take.

10. Are there no other cities with job prospects in their fields, good schools with their programs, neighborhoods with their ethnic group?

11. If your characters are rich enough to afford a townhouse, or lucked into inheriting one, can they handle the reality of living there longterm? On average, they’re 18–20 feet wide, 100 feet deep. Anything 25 feet or over is classified as a mansion, and very uncommon. Others are narrower than 18 feet, and most tend not to have very big yards. Most older townhouses don’t have lifts, so your characters will have to trawl up and down as many as six flights of stairs multiple times every day.

12. Keep in mind townhouses, rowhouses, and many apartments share walls out of spacial necessity. Your characters won’t like that very much if they’re used to privacy and breathing space.

13. Unless they live on Staten Island or in certain parts of the outer boroughs, your characters will have to say goodbye to their cars or pay through the roof to keep them in a garage. Very few homes have garages or parking spots.

14. Are your characters really the type to not mind conducting much of their lives on sidewalks and in public parks? When one has a small apartment, that’s the default setting.

15. Does this story absolutely need to be set in NYC? Manhattan is the majority setting of Little Ragdoll because the real-life girl who inspired it lived there. Some of my Atlantic City characters move to NYC for school and end up staying because of the large Jewish community. Many of my Russian and Estonian characters establish lives there after immigrating, and the succeeding generations stay because that’s all they know.

But odds are, you could just as easily tell the same story, albeit with some modifications, in Montréal, Baltimore, Cape Cod, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, or Louisville. Intelligent readers will appreciate the chance to learn about a new city instead of reading yet another book thoughtlessly set in NYC.

One thought on “NYC should not be a default setting

  1. If you remember the old TV show The Naked City you might recall how each episode ended with a narrator saying, “There are 8 million stories in the naked city–this has been one of them.” That many stories can sure go a long way!

    I usually enjoy the stories that take place in NYC, but I don’t totally relate to them either having never lived in that city. But I’ve lived in L.A. for nearly 30 years and don’t much relate to it either. I’d probably be most inclined to use a small town setting.

    Of course, it’s the story that matters. Even the coolest setting in the world can’t save a really bad story. Give me a good story with good characters and excellent writing and I’ll go anywhere.

    Your points are well taken though.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


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