I was hard at work in a local coffee house, elbow deep in paper festooned with red pen marks. A lady from a nearby table leaned over and asked what I was doing. When I told her I was working on a novel, she chirped, “Oh! What is it about?” I described the plot and setting and then answered her follow-up question: “What’s your working title?”
Almost before the entire title was out of my mouth, the woman’s companion cut me off with the remark, “You’re not supposed to TELL people your working title.” The woman leaned back and shook her head at me. She said in a despairing voice, “I don’t KNOW about Maine writers who write about other places.” Her companion added “I’ve LIVED in the place where your novel is set.” The lady added, “He’s a professional writer, you know.”
I did not have the opportunity to explain that I’ve traveled in my book’s setting and lived in similar places, giving me my own experience of that setting (i.e. I’m not “making up” everything I describe). The pair lost interest in me and my book after their pronunciations, closing the topic with a soft murmur from the woman, repeating my working title and promising, “I’ll watch for it.” The last utterance is a roundabout way of saying I can count these guys out as readers, since if they “watch for my book” under the working title (which I’ve since changed twice), they won’t be finding anything I wrote. POSTSCRIPT: Having crossed paths with the couple again, I am certain now that they won’t be among my fans. The man said a very brief “hi” and looked away and the woman merely gave me the panicked ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look to which I have become accustomed when people discover that I write (see the post Snakes Alive).
The topic of working titles and etiquette around them could be a post all by itself. Instead I prefer to ponder the question of why anyone should write about any place other than their home. Some sages tell us we should “write what we know.” Others have noted that if that were a rule we would have no fantasy, little science fiction, not much in the way of adventure, and, I suspect, a lot less romance (good-bye to both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray). The vast majority of my Smashwords catalog would be wiped out, excepting maybe a couple short stories and, perhaps, my gentle romance parody set in Jackson, Wyoming, where I lived for a summer. The short story, ‘Learning to Shine,’ stolen from a friend’s childhood memories would be iffy.
The lady’s concern about my setting is voiced in such a way that it presumes I had a real choice. In fact, ideas will come to me in situ, asking to be written in a place that I can fully picture. Once in a great while, I can perform a transplant but the risks are the same as if I were dealing with live hearts. Once in a while, I drop one and it splatters. As many have pointed out, settings are characters in themselves (Google “setting as character” for many useful tips on the subject). One does not deal with settings lightly.
It’s not that Maine is a terrible setting. Literature set in Maine is a genre unto itself and writers ooze out of every nook and cranny in the state. Much of Stephen King’s work is set here in the fictional Castle Rock and other such towns. Although the movie was filmed in New Hampshire, On Golden Pond is set here, very close to where I live now and where the author once lived. For that matter, Empire Falls, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, was partially filmed in my town on a street I often pass. These two depictions of life in Maine couldn’t be more different and yet both are true to the place I know. So is The Beans of Egypt Maine, a different vision yet. I can recognize King’s characters (until they sprout scales, fangs, and fur) in my daily life (usually buying a carton of cigarettes and two cases of beer at the local convenience store in line ahead of me).
I have a lot of affection for Maine. It just does not always happen to be what calls to me when I sit down to write. I am not deliberately spurning my home state. I simply have to follow the path the story has taken. I’d rather take the advice of another professional writer from Maine, Stephen King (see the Plumbers in Space post) and write what I want (or what is wanted by the story), than let random coffee shop patrons dictate my actions. Besides, my book wouldn’t have it any other way.