The write what you know idea seems more suited to literary than crime fiction. Dysfunctional families, ennui, chemically assisted gropings for meaning in stygian suburban dystopias? We’ve all been there. But a knife sliding between the ribs and into the heart, the tremulous vibrations of a fading life communicated down the blade and the handle so that you hold the secret of mortality in your own sweating palm? That I’m making up – I mean so far as you know.
What I know, however, carries a lot of water when it comes to settings.
My novels are set in Chicago. I’ve lived in the city’s shadow my whole life, and worked in its bowels for nigh on thirty years. As a matter of practicality, this knowledge saves a lot of work. Comes time to write a scene, I’ve got a place in my head. I know what the character’s gonna see out the windows, what the weather’s like any given month of the year, what expressway he’s gonna jump on to get wherever. I still make places up, of course – a couple of churches I needed for this book, for example. But I just transplanted ones I’ve been to, so I know the layout, the color the brick, the way the light falls in the windows. I’m a little amazed at fantasy author types who have to make up entire worlds – new flora, new fauna, new races of folk. Seems like a lot of pick and shovel work, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it.
But more so than the physical setting, places with which we have intimate familiarity carry some psychic baggage that also flavors our work. Just like the real Chicago, the Chicago in my story is rotted through with corruption. That sense of civic degradation is present in the words like a stench – it informs the characters actions, their moods, their beliefs.
And there is a northern urban-ness (new word I made up, and its way different from urbanity). It’s a kind of grubbing, shallow banality. It’s a different sense than I get when reading things set in rural settings, particularly southern settings. In those, there is a sense of the earth, a connection to the land, the shadow of history like a miasma in the air. Characters have folk drifting back into the mists of antiquity, great grandfathers who fought with Lee, slavers, ancestors on either side of the race line – it seems to make for a rich and muddled stew of motivations and regrets and secrets. Here, ancestors are a later wave of immigrants – usually just a generation or two back. They left dire circumstances there for dire urban lives here. None of that has yet settled into any real culture – the blender is still running. It makes for hard, shallow men willing to do brutal things for little reason, almost a kind a nihilism. It is, I suppose, the contrast between steel and earth, between concrete and a wooded holler.
But that’s just my take, how I react to what I’ve experienced. And I’ve done the rural thing a bit in some shorts lately – played with my new familiarity with Southwest Wisconsin. A whole different feel.
So what say ye? How does where you’ve lived affect what you write?