You’re preparing to take a trip somewhere with a great literary heritage, and whether it be Paris, London, NYC, or any other city, somebody will tell you the same thing. You’ve probably heard this line before, mostly from people who aren’t writers. “You should write about it,” or “You should set a story there.” It seems innocuous enough to them, but as you know, it’s a challenge to set a story somewhere that has been written about so many times, doubly so if you’re only visiting for a short time.
It’s true, Hemingway has famously written about every single place he lived, except for his hometown, Faulkner wrote about his home in Mississippi through the veil of Yoknapatawpha County, and Jay McInerney about NYC. Writing a piece set in these places will bring about inevitable comparisons by the aforementioned friend who gave the advice, and probably even by yourself, and a bad time will be had by all. I’m not going to tell you to become a great chronicler of Orlando, portraying the lifestyles of the tan and perpetually warm in your fiction, and I’m not saying to avoid writing about these places, but I will share my experience on the subject. Don’t write the piece while you’re there.
When I studied in Paris for a semester, I had heard people suggest I write about it several times, and I did, or at least I made several attempts. I checked all of the boxes of writing about Paris while there: the cobblestones, the smell in the rain, the unique café culture, the women. The women. This was some of the worst fiction I had ever written, and at first I failed to see exactly why, I just knew it was bad.
Thankfully, I had the prescience to allow myself to set a story back home, which went much better, and eventually was part of my writing sample for UCF. Paris didn’t inspire me directly, but it gave me something I had never had before: distance between myself and the subject matter. By looking across the sea at my character back home in Indiana, I became aware of what was different, things at home I would have never noticed before. I hadn’t noticed cobblestone, but I noticed slight differences in trees, the texture of our bread, and how new everything really was back in the states, particularly the Midwest. I noticed that the stone there didn’t have little fossils in it like Indiana limestones, and how much quieter everywhere was though it was much more crowded.
Right now I’m preparing my thesis proposal, which is essentially a plan plus explanation for what your thesis is about. Mine is going to be a collection of stories set back at home in Southern Indiana, with a focus on the unique characters and situations found there. Meth will probably come into play more than once, since meth manufacturing and usage in the Midwest makes Breaking Bad look like a collection of microbrewers. That’s something I never would have been aware of back home, since meth related crime was so much a part of our lives, at the very least in the news and local gossip. I’m using differences found in Central Florida to learn about my home, and see it in unique ways.
While you may not have the luxury of going to Paris, and you may already be from Orlando, you don’t have to go far to notice changes. I go to Sanford to cleanse my visual palate, or to the beach, or to St. Pete. Doing so I learn about Orlando, though I’ve yet to incorporate it into my fiction, but it can put you in the right mindset.
After a while of being in the same place, you stop noticing things around you, and you spend large parts of your day on autopilot. This is typically reserved for commutes, but it also extends to familiar drives to favorite local spots. Even in Paris, I stopped noticing the Eiffel Tower after a week or two, just because it was always there. After taking the walk home from school where I rarely consciously noticed the awning for a local Metallica themed bar, “James Hetfeeld’s Bar.” After a trip out of the city though, I chuckled once more at the awning until it returned to the background. Even if you can’t travel, try to turn the autopilot off for a little bit, and you’ll be surprised what you notice, whether it be as big as a new restaurant or as small as a letter in a sign.
I’m not saying it is impossible to write about where you are, or even somewhere that has written about many times before, but space sometimes lets you see place differently. With the space I now have from Paris, I even managed to set a story there, minus the checklist.
Matt Thomas is a first year candidate at the University of Central Florida’s MFA with a focus in fiction. Hailing from Bloomington, Indiana, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Evansville. A lover of cars, road trips, and cats, he recently proposed to longtime girlfriend Allie Minton, a writer and cat lover as well.