Deepest Fears, Publishing, Uncategorized, Writer's Life, Writing Tips

What If My Setting is ALL WRONG?

There are plenty of things to poke fun at in Minnesota.

Taken last November after the harvest- this is the cornfield next door to the house I grew up in. I could add more shots of the locale, but they’re all pretty similar…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the state of my birth- even after years away, it still feels like home. 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.

Thus, my first instinct is to cringe 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 venture outdoors in winter. It toughens you up!)

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 on the hill.

Herman the German
‘Herman the German’ led German tribes against the Romans in the early A.D.s, and now he sits atop a prime sledding hill in New Ulm, MN

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 they even have a Wal-Mart now. Options!)

In choosing a setting for “New In Town,” 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.

I didn’t come out of it outraged, just a bit disappointed- disappointed, and frightened.

You see, while I’ve visited most of the of the lower 48 states, I haven’t had much chance to leave the country.

We made the occasional trip up over the border to Canada.  These weren’t extensive, more along the lines of “Hey! I went shopping in Canada! Culture!!!”

The trip to Aruba for our honeymoon was amazing, and we were excited to get local money and go to local shops and sites rather than the touristy places.

It didn’t go quite like we planned. 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.

Now, 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.

Oh dear…

I’ve tried, oh how I’ve tried, to do it well.

I’ve pored 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 spent hours agonizing over cadences of speech and proper word usage.  (I had no idea that ‘tea’ could mean so many different things!)

I’ve found travel books to get an idea for 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 so on.

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 to the courage and suffering of the past, 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.


While I first published a version of this post more than a year ago, as I’ve actually set a publication date for myself, the concerns are back in full force!

Any thoughts, writers? How do you cope with writing in unfamiliar settings? (Or do you just avoid it?!)

Many thanks for visiting!


10 thoughts on “What If My Setting is ALL WRONG?”

  1. This is such an important post! As a writer, I 100% avoid unfamiliar settings. IMHO, when I write about a place, I want it to feel genuine and true, not forced, like the movie you mentioned.

    I’m currently working on a story set on the south. Though I’ve lived in Houston, L.A., and Denver most of my life, the place (and customs) I’m most familiar with is the southern U.S. (because I was there for all my childhood and adolescence). Powder-sugary begnets, trees hanging with Spanish moss, and ya’ll/fixing to is what I’m most familiar with 😉

    Again, great post, great topic! Take care,

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A wonderful article, Anne – thank you for sharing your writing experiences and this very honest fear, though I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’ve done the research and you’re clearly an able, talented writer – I’m sure it will be great. Nonetheless, fingers crossed!

    Nope. I’ve never set my work anywhere I know, because I write fantasy and science fiction – there is always an element of the fantastical. That said, my novel coming out next year is set in a post-apocalyptic Maine. And I’ve never set foot in the USA. Like you, I have researched the area extensively. Looked at the flora and fauna and pored over maps. I used photos from Maine as my screensaver as I wrote the novel and got to a stage where I felt I’d internalised the setting sufficiently.

    And, like you, I’m now waiting with my fingers crossed and hope I don’t get any reviews that say it’s a good story, pity about the glaring mistake about X…

    But do I regret doing it? No – it’s where my story made sense to be set and part of writing has to be about taking risks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good for you! I’ve seen what wonderful world-building you do in your sci-fi work and I’ll bet it all comes together in your new work perfectly 🙂
      Thanks for the vote of confidence- It’s like you said, when the setting just makes sense for a story, you have to work with it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, you can write any place and any time, my friend. What matters is that readers can feel it too. The way I see it, you are writing FICTION. It’s made up. Colin Dexter of the Inspector Morse novels got some crack for not following police procedurals like they really are. His reaction? “It’s fiction.” How true! How often stories condense procedurals, ignore bathroom functions, etc. In the end, you’re writing a story. Yes, you’re setting it in a historical period. But in the end, you’re still writing about people you created in a community you created. Create it with details we can feel, see, taste, touch, and hear, and we’ll be happy! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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