Posted in Writing

Housing and characters should complement one another

Just as it’s most vitally important to choose the right setting for your story, it’s also important to choose the right type of housing for your characters. One of the many reasons my storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC failed was because it never advanced beyond liking the idea of them living in a beautiful old townhouse or luxury apartment. It never took into account where they truly most belong.

You can want to write about, e.g., 16th century London, 1750s Prague, 1840s Boston, 1880s Manhattan, 1920s Paris, or 1960s San Francisco all you want, but that won’t mean anything if it never develops beyond an abstract idea and doesn’t naturally fit with the characters.

Think about who your characters truly are, not how you’re forcing them to be. While they’ll of course go whichever way you dictate, you may eventually discover you chose the wrong path. If this happens several books into a series instead of while writing a standalone or first book in a series, you need to work with what you already have instead of lighting everything on fire and potentially creating even more mistakes.

It’s the same as with any other storyline you discover naturally taking another path, like a character meeting the perfect future spouse well before you planned for her/him to meet an entirely different partner. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Think about who your characters are, really are, not just how you’d like them to be. Growing up in a certain type of home creates a certain state of mind. There are distinct differences between the following kinds of people:

A proletarian with deep roots in a major metropolis, who grew up playing on sidewalks, going to public parks for green spaces, stoop-sitting and people-watching, living in a modest walk-up apartment and not knowing anyone with a private house.

An old money family with lots of kids, living in a 6,000-square foot estate where all the space is made perfect use of instead of being for grandiose show. Their property includes many acres of gardens, trees, brindle paths, and fishponds.

A wealthy family with a 3,000-square foot duplex apartment in the big city, complete with a doorman, elevator operator, several servants, and amenities like a sauna, pool, and exclusive restaurants. They also have a summer home by the seashore.

A lower-middle-class family with a charming bungalow in a sleepy small town.

A humble farming family living nowhere near even a smaller town, with a self-sufficient existence.

A newlywed couple in a 100-year-old Tudor Revival house in a thriving artists’ colony in a very old suburb of a major city, so established it’s become its own city.

A bourgeois family in a brand-new housing development in a suburb 30 miles from the nearest large city.

An aristocratic family with several estates, a townhouse, a yacht, and a few pied à terres.

Members of a reigning family, rather far down the line of succession, with a palace and summer villa considered modest by royal standards.

The ruling branch of said family, who spends the year moving between five different palaces, a yacht, royal relatives’ palaces in other countries, a summer villa, and a hunting lodge.

If you put any of them in a place they’re not accustomed to, it won’t go well. A rich socialite who thrives on apartment life and her second home in the Hamptons will be like a fish out of water in a humble 900-square foot bungalow in a small town in Iowa, just as a third-generation farmer will be very discombobulated if relocated to a grand palace with servants catering to his every need.

Are your characters artists? Intellectuals? Small business owners? What socioeconomic class are they? How about hobbies and personalities? Do they crave privacy, or do they thrive on social life and constant action? Are they passionate about gardening? Do they have any pets? Are any of those pets livestock?

Someone who’s been taken away from their accustomed setting may eventually get used to the new setting. Others may accept it as part of a radical move (e.g., going on the Oregon Trail or immigrating to a new country), but eventually feel more and more of a calling back to the familiar. Still others may never be happy about it.

For some people, a bungalow or 600-square foot condo is the perfect home, while others feel more at home in an old stone cottage or sprawling estate. It’s all down to the individual.

Posted in Writing

Choosing your story’s setting

While all stories necessarily start with an idea instead of coming fully-blown and detailed, they can’t go anywhere if that generating idea isn’t developed or chosen well. And a not unimportant part of that idea is the setting.

Things to consider:

1. Is there a special reason you like this setting? Unless it absolutely has to be set there, maybe your story would work just as well in Dallas, San Diego, Pittsburgh, or New Rochelle as it would in Boston or Manhattan.

2. You’re not beholden to only writing exactly what you know. I hate how so many TV and movie writers set their stories in NYC and LA because that’s where they live(d). Good writers know how to research unfamiliar places, and don’t feel limited to their hometowns.

3. Speaking of, NYC is a lazy default setting! As much as I love reading and writing about the city when normal people could afford to live there and comfortably raise families in realistically-sized apartments, there are so many other awesome U.S. cities to choose from. Like, did the new Apple TV cartoon Central Park really have to be set in NYC? Could the writers think of no other parks?

4. Don’t randomly choose your setting! I wish I’d chosen a different hometown than Abony for my Hungarian characters. While I ultimately found enough pertinent information, it’s not nearly as copious and easy to find as for, e.g., Debrecen, Miskolc, Munkács, Szeged, or Kisvárda.

5. Think outside major cities. There’s lots of happy medium between huge metropolis and tiny hamlet. While it’s easier to find information about bigger cities, there’s plenty of easily-accessible information about other places too.

6. What best fits your characters? An artist or intellectual would thrive in Budapest, New Rochelle, or Boston, whereas an introvert, nature-lover, or someone with an adventurous spirit might feel more at home in a farming village, Hawaii, or Denver.

7. Think about predominant housing modes. Very densely-populated cities offer little choice but apartments, and even if one can afford a townhouse, the backyards typically aren’t that big. If your characters aren’t apartment people, they’ll be very unhappy longterm. Likewise, someone used to city life will be bored stiff by a small town.

8. Think outside of clichés. E.g., instead of yet another immigrant story set in the Lower East Side or San Francisco’s Chinatown, why not St. Louis, Glasgow, Dublin, Toronto, Seattle, Hawaii, or Vancouver? Or maybe your 1950s story can be about people choosing to buck national trends by remaining in a city or moving to a farm instead of hightailing it to suburbia.

9. Small towns and villages aren’t necessarily devoid of dramatic potential. It just won’t be the same type of story in a large city.

10. If you fall out of love with your setting, don’t light the whole thing on fire and force everyone to start all over again elsewhere. Figure out why you feel this way. Maybe they moved to a remote village to escape trauma, or they moved to a big city to become anonymous after experiencing the worst of smalltown attitudes. They could move to a different neighborhood or nearby larger city, or scale back their farm and turn a passionate hobby into a successful business.

11. Don’t show off when writing about a familiar city. No one cares about your intricate knowledge of local bands, bus schedules, street names, and business districts!

12. Even if a neighborhood or town is fictitious, the real world still exists outside. It’s unrealistic if your characters never leave their home base.

13. Cities evolve over time. The neighborhood you know as mainly Jamaican or Korean today may have been mostly Italian or Irish in the 1930s. While Atlantic City has a rather small Jewish community today, it was huge and vibrant till the postwar exodus to suburbia.

14. Even if you end up choosing an über-popular city like NYC, look beyond the most popular neighborhoods. How many books are set in Queens Village, Inwood, or Staten Island vs. Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn Heights?

15. Above all, be open to change. Don’t feel beholden to stay with a city you can’t find enough detailed information about, or because it was in your original outline.

Posted in New York City, Writing

Advice for writing a book set in New York City

My RSW post is here.

Note: Though this post specifically is about NYC, the gist of most of these guidelines could easily be applied to any city which is a popular story setting (e.g., London, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Shanghai, Berlin).

I love writing books set partially or primarily in New York City. It’s so fun to write about the New York of yore, when more normal people could actually afford to live there, before the city was as we know it today. But there are some things to keep in mind if you’re using this popular city as the setting for your own writing, either historical or contemporary.

1. New York City is composed of five boroughs, in spite of how Manhattan seems to be the most-represented in fiction, and Brooklyn occasionally depicted. Why not be original and set your story in Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island? Or you could always have your Manhattan characters eventually move to one of the other boroughs for the chance to live in a real house and have a yard.

2. Get a map of neighbourhoods and see how they intertwine and border one another, which are downtown, uptown, and midtown, how they’ve changed over time. For example, the so-called East Village was just the northern portion of the Lower East Side till the mid-Sixties, when the gentrified residents got uppity ideas and decided to secede in order to distance themselves from the neighbourhood’s historic association with poverty.

3. Learn how demographics have changed over time. For example, The Bowery wasn’t skid-row at all in the antebellum era, and Harlem wasn’t always a majority Black neighbourhood. Hamilton Heights has a lot of Hispanics nowadays, but for much of the 20th century, it was heavily Russian.

4. Please don’t phonetically render accents! Just introduce your character by saying s/he has a strong Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, or Staten Island accent.

5. Don’t overdo it with the regionalisms. My native-born New Yorkers certainly say “yous” and “yous guys,” but not on every single page. You never want to overuse dialect and regionalisms to the point where they become intrusive, comical, distracting, cliché.

6. If your characters are recent transplants, or from a family which hasn’t been in the city long, odds are they won’t have an accent. From what I hear, it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for today’s New Yorkers to have any sort of accent (with the notable exception of the isolated Staten Island). Also, different groups of people have different variations in the accent. For example, Brooklyn accents are different in the Jewish, Italian, and Hispanic communities.

7. If you live in the city, or have lived there, don’t gut-load your book with all your intricate, first-hand knowledge of subway schedules, streets, businesses, local history, etc. That’s mental masturbation, not good world-building. Sprinkle in the local flavour; don’t have people constantly going to Central Park and various museums, riding the subway, going shopping at the famous stores of Midtown, or hanging out at the main library.

8. Know about important historic events that occurred during your timeline, such as the Great Northeast Blackout of November 1965, the terrifying polio epidemic of 1916, and the rubella epidemic which reached the city in late 1963 and continued through 1965.

9. Avoid clichés! You know the sort—Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side; artists and Bohemians in Greenwich Village; wealthy élites uptown; starry-eyed youth hoping to become famous singers, Broadway actors, writers, musicians, or artists; tough-talking Irish or Italians. It’s not that there’s no truth in these clichés, just that it’s not very original.

10. It’s hard to believe, but some normal people still do live in the city, not just haves and have-nots. Maybe their family’s been in the city for generations, and so they just inherited a brownstone or had bought an apartment when prices were relatively affordable. Maybe someone married into a New York family and was able to live in the city that way. And some places are relatively affordable by city standards (esp. outside of Manhattan).

11. One of the worst aspects of TV shows set in the city is having characters with less than stellar jobs able to afford nice apartments and neighbourhoods. Give your characters jobs that make living in a place like the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village realistic, and don’t show them hanging out at the coffee shop and one another’s apartments far more than they’re shown working (coughfriendscough).

12. Learn about public transportation and the parking situation. There’s a reason most residents don’t own cars. Also, you don’t have to specify the exact subway or bus schedule and locations. It’s also not hard to look up what taxi and subway rates were in decades past, if you want to specify fare.

13. There are a lot of neighbourhoods beyond the best-known. If you’re using the popular Manhattan, why not try a lesser-represented place like the Meatpacking District, Two Bridges, Yorkville, Hudson Heights, or Carnegie Hill?