31 March 2015

Does Your City Cut It?

by Jim Winter

In the before time, in the long, long ago, I decided I would never write a story set in Los Angeles or New York. (I've since broken that rule with New York City.) No, I was going to be different. I was going to be unique. I was going to set my crime fiction in Cleveland.


OK, so Les Roberts had been doing it for about twelve years at that point. So his series was going to run out of steam soon. Right?

Er... No. He's still writing about Cleveland-based PI Milan Jackovich. But that's one series set on the North Coast. How many does New York have? Cleveland? Boston is lousy with crime fiction. Even Detroit, Cleveland's fellow declining Rust Belt city, has Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and those are just the most notable Motor City authors.

Cleveland proved to be good fodder. My Cleveland is not Les's Cleveland is not Michael Koryta's. Cleveland. And that's pretty cool. Some have asked me why I haven't written in Cincinnati.

Well...

The city never really grabbed me the way Cleveland did. Ditto for Ohio's other big C, Columbus. I'm sure I could go nuts with Cincinnati, particularly with the West Side's well-defined culture that even they make fun of. I've taken stabs at it, but Cincinnati was always a place to live for me, not a place to tell stories. And I know that's not fair. Jonathan Valin spent the eighties writing about Harry Stoner's adventures in the Queen City.

So what is it that draws us to write about certain cities? LA and New York get a large share of stories simply because they are the two largest cities in the US. But what about the smaller cities? Why Cleveland for me and Les and Michael? What makes Stuart MacBride have his cops prowl the streets of Aberdeen, one of Scotland's lesser known cities, instead of, say, London or across the sea in Dublin?

A lot of it has to do with where the author is from. When we travel and pass through a city, we see a collection of tall buildings in the middle of urban sprawl. Every town has a McDonald's and carpet stores and the same gas station chains. I remember when one author came to Cincinnati for a signing, I suggested a place to eat simply because I liked eating there.

"Naw, that's a bit too chainy."

So it was. We hit the neighborhood bar across the parking lot from the bookstore. But these are the things that make cities interesting. Nick Kepler's favorite deli really exists on St. Clair. And while Milan Jackovich's Vuk's doesn't exist, it wasn't that long ago you could find two or three bars in Slavic Village similar to it.

As with fictional cities, it's that lived-in feel that makes even real-life cities come alive for the readers.

Cleveland

3 comments:

Melodie Campbell said...

Interesting post. I write about Hamilton (locals call it The Hammer or Steeltown) because, in Canada, it is unique. I've lived in Toronto and Vancouver as well, but they don't sing with character the way The Hammer does. "Setting as character" is important in my novels.

Eve Fisher said...

Setting is always character - or I think it should be. Whether it's Nero Wolfe's brownstone, or Tony Hillerman's New Mexico, or Botswana, or Chicago, or Boston. We read for the story, we read for the style, we read for the characters, and we also read for the setting. Nice post.

Leigh Lundin said...

I started a story in a quaint town outside of Cleveland in Hudson, Ohio (which I called Judson since I took a few liberties with it). Through consulting, I learned a bit about Ohio, from Cleveland to the mafia-riddled Youngstown area and the nearby town of Canfield that pretends it's above it all. I got to know Columbus, but I agree it's difficult to imagine a crime series set in America's consumer testing city, especially in a town that hasn't learned not to overcook fish. Okay, I rant off-topic. And finally Cincinnati, which was once so beautiful that some called it a Midwestern San Francisco, but now features atmosphere-clogging skyscraper canyons like any other city.