It's a rare thing for me to find myself somewhere new – or even somewhere I know but haven't been in a while – and not be visited by an urge to set a story there. I'm not exactly sure why this is, except that places impress themselves on me through a combination of history, geography, and culture that seem like the basic ingredients of a story. Throw in character and some manner of conflict, and you're off to the races. I mean, slowly, but anyway, you've got your start. Or I have mine.
There's something, too, about the novelty of such experiences – some new landscape, with unfamiliar names, and the precise and particular manner in which the light falls on the buildings erected from locally-quarried stone, or bricks fired in a way particular to that town, or the fields broken by a regionally-specific form of fencing, or the strange historical detail which makes the locals speak the way they do, or do what they do, or what have you – that gets the juices flowing. I heard a radio piece recently on a study which suggested that heretofore untried experiences – going somewhere different, doing something new – can reignite the fires of physical passion in long term committed relationships, and if our relationship to our writing isn't best described as “long term” and “committed,” I don't know why we'd bother with it at all, so I guess the same thing holds there.
At some point I come to recognize that I have a responsibility to honour the place and the people there resident, so I try to get everything right. This means research, if it's not a place with which I'm terrifically familiar. I get it wrong sometimes. I wrote a nonfiction piece about baseball in Pittsburgh once, and I suggested the locals would celebrate a Pirates' World Series victory by drinking Yuengling Lager, and a nice Yinzer wrote to say that he loved the piece, but “we drink Iron City beer.” I was grateful for the correction. Sometimes it takes a local to get things right.
And yet sometimes a visitor is, it seems to me, uniquely positioned to pick up on the things which make a spot different or remarkable. This is my working theory, anyway, and has been for quite some time. Place and setting were big preoccupations of mine while I wrote the stories in my first collection. The characters find themselves in Florida, rural Illinois, the Canadian prairies, the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta and, mostly, Ontario. In each case these were places I'd visited and which left some sort of impression on me that I felt compelled to work out in writing. An image would usually catch my eye, and then a story would coagulate around that. On Manitoulin Island I saw a blue pickup truck parked in the middle of nowhere, and I put two people in it and tried to work out their situation, and very soon I had a story called “Dark Blue.” When I began writing “In the Foothills” it was set in Yuma, Arizona. I first conceived of it as I flew in a small turboprop from LAX over the lunar terrain west of Yuma and a pair of men next to me discussed the ungodly heat of the place in summer. But shortly thereafter I visited my sister in Calgary, and on a daytrip to Banff I realized that the terrain between Cowtown and the Rockies was the right location for the story I'd yet to finish. That change seemed to unlock the story, and I completed a rewrite in a single sitting.
I still plan to go back to Yuma though, fictionally speaking, because its landscape won't leave me alone. It's the same with other places I've set stories, including Athens, Manzanillo, Halifax, Louisville, Vermont, northern Maine, and California; something about the locale lodges in my craw, setting off a restlessness, a curiosity, a hunger for the detail that will lift a story off the page and into the grimy and beautiful corporeal world. In each case the process is inexact but in its way thrilling: I pick the place, paint myself in a geographical corner there, and then try my best to write my way out of it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Andrew Forbes’s work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. He is the author of What You Need, a collection of fiction, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.