There are plenty of things to poke fun at in Minnesota.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my home state. But just as it’s easy to give a beloved family member a hard time for his quirks, it’s easy to laugh at the little absurdities of a familiar place.
Of course, it’s not comfortable for someone ELSE to poke fun at your family…or your home.
This is why I cringe a bit when the big movie companies attempt to set films in the Midwest.
Maybe you remember the movie that came out a few years back, “New in Town”? It was set in New Ulm, MN.
I spent a considerable amount of time in New Ulm, and no, I never met a cow in the road. Still, the little river town has plenty of quirks.
The movie missed them all.
Sure, they had a lot of jokes about snow, and yes, Minnesota gets a bit chilly. (Ok, fine. It’s cold enough that your snot freezes when you go outside most Januaries. It just makes us stronger!)
The problem is, the ‘it’s cold in the north!’ gag could be applied to thousands of locations.
New Ulm is fairly distinctive, as little Minnesota towns go. It has German immigrant roots, and it’s pretty proud of its heritage- hence the big glockenspiel downtown, and the statue of Herman the German up on ‘the hill.’
It also completely closes down by 8pm, so college kids, desperate for excitement, used to cruise around the aisles of the 24 hour Hy-Vee grocery store. (Rumor has it a Wal-Mart went in, so maybe there are more options now.)
I could go on, but my point is that the film’s writers chose a place that has some interesting quirks, but having never been there, they only took easy shots. “Hey! Let’s talk about snow! Oooh, and at least one character’s gotta have that goofy Midwest accent!”
I don’t imagine that these decisions affected the success of the film. Plenty of friends with New Ulm connections saw it and enjoyed it, and I didn’t come out of it outraged, just a bit disappointed.
And, thinking about it now, more than a bit frightened.
You see, while I’ve visited the majority of the ‘lower 48’ of the United States, I haven’t had much chance to leave the country.
Growing up in Minnesota, we made the occasional trip up over the border to Canada. These weren’t extensive visits, they were more along the lines of, “Hey! I went shopping in Canada! Culture!!!”
We went to Aruba for our honeymoon (AMAZING) and were excited to get local money and go to local shops and sites rather than the touristy places. The poor kid at the store where we bought provisions was completely flummoxed when we didn’t hand him American dollars. He figured out how to make proper change…eventually.
Aside from a very seasick trip to Victoria, British Columbia, that’s it.
And here I am, trying to produce a realistic story, set in an era I don’t live in, and on a continent I’ve never visited.
I’ve tried, oh how I’ve tried, to do it well.
I’ve poured over maps and histories so that my characters are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be.
I’ve lost count of the number of first-hand sources I’ve read to get the ‘flavor’ of the times and places. I’ve focused hours on cadences of speech and proper word usage. (I had no idea that ‘tea’ could mean so many different things!)
I’ve found travel books at the library to get pictures of the landscapes and of construction materials common to different areas.
I’ve checked locations of railway lines.
I’ve checked native plants and when they’d be blooming.
I’ve checked weather conditions…
…and while I keep telling myself that I’ve done the work and it should be fine, I still have this sinking feeling that if anyone who LIVES in any of the areas I write about reads this book, they’ll KNOW. They’ll know that I’m writing as an outsider.
Here’s where the fear rears its ugly head: will my attempts be taken as they are meant- as an homage, though perhaps an imperfect one?
I hope so.
Maybe next time I just need to come up with an exciting plot set in a corn field.
Writers- how do you cope with writing in unfamiliar settings? (Or do you just avoid it?!)