When I began my novel, one of the first questions I answered to myself was where my story would take place. Ultimately Washington State seemed the best choice for the setting of my novel. To those I shared my story’s premise I’ve defended my choice, always feeling confident in the real locations of Seattle, Bremerton and Bainbridge Island Washington.
This was, of course, until I was reduced to a bumbling tourist when the receptionist at the Bremerton police station asked ‘Why here, why my city?” For the first time in my travels and writing adventures I was stumped on how to answer this seemly simple question. Now, I’ve answered this many times over, but somehow needing to answer her, a native to the very place i was writing about, colored the matter differently.
Obviously, It was a valid question. What could possibly be the motivator for a 30 something-year-old Puerto Rican woman from New York City, who had never been anywhere near the Northwest travel 3,000 miles to this wet vastly green and other worldly place? Why not create a fictional world, perhaps resembling a “somewhere” but primarily imagined?
The short answer: I wanted a small town or city that could be in a sense isolated from the world, both in distance to Seattle but also within it’s natural landscape. I wanted a working class community that had areas with socioeconomic issues. Each of these things needed to be overshadowed by a large city within its direct view (Seattle).
It was through preliminary research and general knowledge of Seattle that lead for me to believe Washington State could be the perfect setting for my story.
With the help of Google Maps, online photos and movies showing me the topography of the western Olympic Mountains and the eastern Cascade Range I saw how the area seemed like an eden sandwiched between their peaks. This capsule of land masses contain deep blue bodies of water, lush parks and forests, rich farming and food communities. Each of these things seemed to be intertwined within a rich Native American and Navel Military history. All the amenities of the region perfectly served the narrative in my story.
Why is the location, whether imagined or chosen even important? I believe the physical location or world within a story can play a role in the daily functions and actions of the characters. If you delve a little deeper it can be used as the external force that shapes your character behavior, pushing the story forward. Your setting can be another cue to your character’s personality, their conflicts or the current state/future that will be foretold. For example: If you create the world within your story as a barren place, devoid of resources, it can be reflective of the internal and emotional support your character may be lacking.
The “Real” Reason Why I Chose Washington State: Each of the locations and settings are naturalistic representations of my characters. They mirror each of their hopes, desires and regrets.
- Seattle “ The Big City” is the dark harshness of life, poverty, violence and filth. Each of these things is reminiscent of his past and family, all the things he is running from. Of course this is where the challenge is met, where family and love comes from the very place he despises.
- Bremerton represents the hard working civil servant he is. It is the distance he has found and creates for his son, away from the pain and hurt of his family.
- The mountain ranges are the ruggedness and harshness he carries within himself along with the beauty he exudes during his happiest moments.
- Bainbridge Island is the false tranquility he desires, the loneliness he feels and isolation he has already created.
For these reasons Washington State is the right place for my characters to live. So, after a year and a half into my story, I made the decision to go to the place I had been daydreaming and writing about.
I was terrified. I was afraid that when I arrived it wouldn’t be what I had imagined or wrote it to be. But mostly I was afraid I had made a mistake in using the real instead of a imagined world.
6 Hours, 8 Minutes and 2,858 Miles Later….
When I stepped off of the plane and walked out of the terminal the first thing I did both out of necessity and curiosity, was take a deep breath in. It was more than what I believe my imagination could have come up with or at least accurately depict.
Seattle was hip but still had a flare of grunge throughout the seams. Bremerton was filled with hard-working craftsmen and engineers, each working on military submarines and monstrous air-craft carriers. Bainbridge Island was engulfed by rich green forests surrounded by pebbled beaches, truly paradise.
I was beyond excited to be there. Even the jet lag and three hour time difference didn’t stop me from staying up late each night preparing for the next day of visiting, talking, picturing, smelling and touching.
With every day that passed I began to feel my novel coming life. I began to believe if written effectively, readers could relate to and connect with these characters as well as the places. It’s not to say that a world completely created by a writer cannot convey the same buy-in from your readers, but for me it was what I had wanted for this story and needed to help improve the writing of my third main character…setting.
Walking on the actual beach of Fay State Park in Bainbridge Island I could easily visualize their first date and physically plot out a picnic with his son and wife. Yes, I’ve walk on beaches before, many in fact, from the salty sweet cold waters of Portland Maine to the still tropic ocean of Isla Mujers in Mexico. I could and have taken those examples in my writing, however being there, rolling the scenes around in my mind, gave me conceptual and logistical clarity I needed.
Many writers choose to invent just the town (and the people in it) and leave the country and state and its political system intact. This can be an easy way of going about it, it avoids continuity issues. You are the creator of that world, therefore it is. However, if you use a real location you’d better get the details right and that can only come through careful research.
So, did I have to actually go to Washington and walk the path my characters are walking to write a good story? No, I didn’t. But by basing my story on a place that isn’t fully imagined, it is providing me with the motivation and tactile information needed to help me bring to life the relationships, the love and the loss, each transpiring within the characters I’m creating.
From Google Searches To Actually Living It!