I've probably made it clear - perhaps too clear - I'm a big fan of setting. A lot of times, many of the stories I've written came from traveling. In a former life, I made the trip from Cincinnati to Hilton Head. There were two routes, one I considered the scenic route. It went through Virginia and West Virginia, using US 52 (the source of a few Wile E. Coyote memes for the rock slides over by Portsmouth, Ohio) to return home. The bulk of this route is on I-77, which begins in Cleveland. Because of its proximity to Hilton Head, the trip down often included side trips to Savannah, Georgia. And Savannah fascinated me.
It resulted in Road Rules, a road trip caper that follows two high school friends as they attempt to deliver a collectible Cadillac to Miami. The final third of the novel takes place in Savannah, which makes a beautiful place for everything to go to hell.
All this from a handful of trips south and back.
It didn't stop there. I published three short stories about an ex-convict adopting a false identity and trying to make a new life as a restaurateur. His own past and the past of his mentor and former cellmate come back to violently upend his new life. But the prison take wasn't the inspiration. No, in 2007, I took two business trips to San Francisco and fell in love with the city. I stayed out in Walnut Creek (not far, I learned, from the home of one member of Metallica) and traveled into the city over weekends and on the day before I left. It was amazing, and I needed a way to put the city into a story. Eventually, I hit on the owner of a biker-themed bar looking to turn it into a chain only to have violent men from his or his cellmate's past come after him. Walnut Creek is not the most spectacular suburb in the Bay Area, but I managed not only to tie in a nearby park, but reference Altamont Speedway, the sight of the disastrous 1969 music festival shown in the movie Gimme Shelter.
Has it stopped?
Oh, no.In 2019, my family went out west. My wife and stepson did the Route 66 trip they always wanted. I flew out to San Fran to meet them, then rented a car to drive back to Cincy. I wanted to drive across the country myself, with a detour south to Vegas. The trip took me into worlds I did not know existed. The Sierras of California are not the Bay Area. It reminded me of some parts of West Virginia with much taller mountains. And peacocks. The town we stopped in for lunch swarmed with peacocks. Nevada, once you get past Reno, is almost an alien landscape: Scrub desert with old mining towns, some of which should have become ghost towns. A miscalculation had us driving 9 hours from Reno to Vegas instead of the six I thought it was. However, at night, Nevada becomes even stranger. I nearly hit a wild ass - I'm used to deer in Ohio - and saw the big empty that is the edge of Area 51. Vegas makes New York City at night look sleepy. Plus, as my stepson pointed out, we saw, um, workers in the intimate arts coming off a hard day's night.
Utah is the most gorgeous state I've ever been to. Wyoming is all ranches and oil fields, and we ended up so high into the Rockies that, on June 3, we drove past six foot snow packs. And life is different in these areas. Nevada is as close to the old frontier as you can get. Salt Lake City is monumentally chill. Wyoming offered us roughnecks, ranches, trains that stretched into the distance, and majestic mountains.
And it became clear to us as we drove into Denver that the real dividing line between east and west is not the Mississippi. It's the Continental Divide. Denver, despite being a mile up and framed by peaks that are part of the sky, more resembles the cities of the east than it does places like Vegas or Salt Lake or Laramie. And there are a wealth of stories to be told from that trip alone.
Nor is this the end. Our first post-pandemic vacation this summer will be a drive through New England. The main stops, after a night in Niagara Falls, will be Lake Champlain and two nights in Bar Harbor, Maine. Along the way, the countryside will more resemble Stephen King's fictional western Maine than the industrial Midwest where I live. The accents, the food, and the layouts of towns will all change as we head east, then slowly back west from Hartford, CT to home. Will there be story fodder there?