Fifty Shades of States

I’d like to state that some novels capture a state — the feel, the ambiance, the streets, etc.

That obvious fact occurred to me last week as I read Tom MacDonald’s The Charlestown Connection, a mystery set in Massachusetts — mostly Boston’s Charlestown section (pictured above). The novel has interesting characters, but just as interesting is its you-are-there descriptions of various places in Beantown.

Many other novels, of course, do the same with other states in the U.S. I won’t give examples from all 50 states, but will mention one or more books from more than 20 states — listed alphabetically. They might or might not be the ultimate novels set in those states, but they’re in the discussion. And my apologies to non-U.S. readers of this blog for today’s U.S.-centric post. 🙂

Alabama: Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ© contains a double bonus — great evocations of The Yellowhammer State’s present (as of the novel’s 1980s publishing date) and past.

Arizona: Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the story of four women who live in Phoenix.

Arkansas: Charles Portis’ True Grit has an 1870s setting in places such as the rural Dardanelle area and the more citified Fort Smith.

California: Way too many novels to name are set in The Golden State, but, to offer just some examples, there are various John Steinbeck books (East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and so on). Also, the crime fiction of Walter Mosley (such as Devil in a Blue Dress) and Sue Grafton (her alphabet mysteries) expertly conveys the vibe of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara (the city that Grafton’s Santa Teresa is based on), and other California locales.

Florida: Also set in the 1870s, The Yearling captures the atmosphere of a rural/backwoods part of The Sunshine State as author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings focuses on a boy and his fawn.

Georgia: Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye — a hypnotic 1941 novel that includes an unusual (for its time) look at homosexuality — takes places at an Army base in The Peach State.

Hawaii: David Lodge’s Paradise News is initially set in the United Kingdom but then moves to Hawaii — with the state’s many charms depicted amid the plot involving an ill relative and a romance.

Indiana: Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which has a strong theme of “old money” vs. “new money,” is set in Indianapolis.

Louisiana: Anne Rice’s multigenerational The Witching Hour spends many chapters in New Orleans — an evocative place for a spooky novel.

Maine: Many of Stephen King’s intense works are of course set here, and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge also unspool in The Pine Tree State. Strout’s title character is…flinty.

Maryland: A number of Anne Tyler novels, including The Accidental Tourist and Ladder of Years, are set in or near Baltimore.

Michigan: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex stars the gender-confused Cal/Calliope, but a major supporting “character” is Detroit.

Minnesota: Sinclair Lewis placed many of his memorable novels in the Midwest, with Main Street set in The North Star State.

Mississippi: The setting of many a William Faulkner novel, including As I Lay Dying and Light in August.

Missouri: The adventures in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer happen in The Show-Me State.

New Jersey: Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao toggles between the Dominican Republic and a well-described Garden State.

New York: Like California, New York (and especially New York City) is the locale for countless novels. Just five examples from different times would be Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard (set in the 21st century), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (20th century), Jack Finney’s Time and Again (20th and 19th centuries), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (19th century), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (18th century). Time and Again‘s superb photos of NYC in the late 1800s add to the effect.

Ohio: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — of course.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State’s two biggest cities are covered in Lisa Scottoline’s Philadelphia-set mysteries (such as The Vendetta Defense) and in more than one Michael Chabon novel (including Wonder Boys).

Rhode Island: In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Subhash leaves India for graduate studies in Rhode Island and stays there after college as the novel’s dramatic events continue to unfold.

South Dakota: The roamin’ Jack Reacher goes to The Mount Rushmore State in Lee Child’s 61 Hours, and boy is it cold and snowy in that thriller.

Tennessee: Cormac McCarthy’s atmospheric novel Suttree is set in Knoxville.

Washington: Maria Semple’s colorful Where’d You Go, Bernadette includes a satiric look at Seattle.

It of course helps if authors live in/have lived in a state they’re writing about, but there’s always visiting and/or researching the place — as Lee Child did for 61 Hours.

I know I left out many states, authors, and books. Which novels do you associate with certain states? If it’s a state you live or lived in, did the author render things accurately and interestingly?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about the November 6 election — is here.

Authors Who Do and Don’t Set Their Fiction in One Place

A writer’s imagination can travel the world or stay mostly in a specific locale. And readers like both approaches.

Some authors are known for situating many of their novels and stories in one town, city, region, or state. Charles Dickens: London. James Joyce: Dublin. L.M. Montgomery: Prince Edward Island. Stephen King: Maine. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Massachusetts. Edith Wharton: New York City. Anne Tyler: Baltimore. Anne Rice: New Orleans. William Faulkner: Mississippi (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County inspired by the real Lafayette County). Of course, those and other locale-centric authors occasionally vary their settings — as did Dickens with his mid-book sending of Martin Chuzzlewit to America, Hawthorne when he put The Marble Faun in Italy, and Wharton when she focused on Massachusetts resident Ethan Frome.

There are also writers who set many of their novels in either of two places, as Fannie Flagg does with small towns in Missouri and Alabama (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — born on this date, January 15, in 1929 — first became widely known during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott).

Other authors bounce around to lots of locales in their fiction. A prime example is James Michener, who wrote novels titled Alaska, Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Texas, etc. Henry James set much of his fiction in the U.S., England, France, or Italy. Terry McMillan has placed her novels in places such as Michigan, Phoenix, Jamaica, and San Francisco. And, in different books, Lee Child’s roaming Jack Reacher character visits Georgia, Texas, New York City, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, France, and elsewhere.

The toggling can be in one novel, too, as when Donna Tartt places The Goldfinch protagonist Theo Decker in New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam — even as her previous book, The Little Friend, stays in Mississippi.

Some advantages of different settings? Many readers relish “seeing” new places, and authors might be refreshed and invigorated not to be in a geographical “rut.” Heck, the plot, prose, and characters can end up being less predictable because of the new locales. And readers can be nicely surprised — I know I was when Wilkie Collins yanked A Rogue’s Life protagonist Frank Softly out of England and put him on a ship to Australia.

Among the advantages of using the same place in multiple books? Authors know the terrain well and thus their fiction can seem more authentic. Also, they’re able to spend more time on plot, prose, and characters instead of countless hours researching and visiting new locales. Meanwhile, the better writers who focus on one place are obviously “traveling” in other ways — through the realm of human emotions.

Of course, the further back in time authors lived, the harder it was for them to get to other places and to do research. From what I’ve heard, there were few computers or jumbo jets available to Jane Austen…

Who are your favorite past and present authors who have repeatedly used one locale, or who have used different locales in different works? Any other thoughts on this topic?

(There are no California references in this blog post because I recently wrote a piece about literature set in that state.)

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My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

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