|Atlanta skyline via Pinterest|
When I was much younger (read: when I was writing stories in my sophomore high school math class rather than paying attention) I was obsessed with the idea of creating my own towns. Everything I wrote unfolded in a tiny Southern town bursting with local growers and curmudgeony barkeeps. I was heavily influenced by real-life Southern town Social Circle, because it's adorable. And to a certain extent, I felt like creating a whole new place was part of my job as a writer. I felt like I needed to pluck a town out of thin air and give it life. No one would want to read about real places, would they?
I still love small-town stories - and there are a few books on the shelf that will eventually find the light of day set in make-believe places - but the thing about small Southern towns, most of them aren't self-sufficient. Georgia, especially, is a commuter state. Everybody drives everywhere, and we drive far. Within town-proper of those picturesque little places, you'll rarely find a hospital, grocery store, clothier, feed store, etc. Towns are tiny: you can go four miles down the road and move through three towns. So with my novels published thus far, I decided to go for real: Atlanta and its real satellite cities and towns. It's been a rather fun and enlightening study in the patterns of movement in this state. And it gives me more options.
Back to Conroy. He writes about the South Carolina low country where he grew up. In South of Broad he writes specifically about Charleston. Something I noticed: the landmarks of his creation blended seamlessly with those of the city. He effortlessly weaves imagination and stone, presenting the city with such cultural accuracy, while giving himself room to set up shop, so to speak, with fictional businesses, residences, entrepreneurs. He gave me some perspective on what I'm producing as a writer, because that's what I'm doing, working my own made up places into the streets of real cities.
The age-old writer advice of "write what you know" has always felt rather...unhelpful. The greatest books of all time were born from pure imagination. Anybody think Tolkien knew an actual hobbit? But writing what you know when it comes to setting...that works for Pat Conroy. That's been one of his claims to fame. I hope it works for me, too.
That's one of my South of Broad takeaways: don't discount what you DO KNOW just because it seems mundane to you. I know Marietta, and Kennesaw, and Cartersville, and Alpharetta - I know what those places feel like, smell like, act like - but my readers don't. Some of my readers are in the UK, and to them, I hope these places feel self-possessed and new, like diving into a world they've never seen. Pat Conroy has renewed my confidence in real settings.
I want to amend that tired old rule. Instead of "write what you know," how about, "don't throw out what you know."