A Long Distance Relationship with Setting

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Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to my guest Natalia Sylvester—I hope you’ll check out her blog (one of my favorites) here. Natalia and I met in March when we both blogged about cooking memories and writing. Since then we have often, quite by coincidence, written about similar subjects! But today, by design, I am very happy Natalia has written a guest post about the definition of home—a topic near and dear to both our hearts. Please welcome my wonderful guest Natalia…

I’ve never been much for the “write what you know” mantra, but I am a fan of its distant cousin: “write where you are.” Growing up, as my family moved from my birthplace of Lima, Peru, to Miami, Florida, to Central Florida and a couple more towns in between, I became fascinated with the definition of home.
As a child, I thought home meant staying in one place for longer than two years. I imagined that as an adult, I’d find a place and stay put.

Life doesn’t always work that way, and apparently, neither has my fiction. Looking through my previous stories and my current novel, I noticed a pattern: whenever I moved, my fiction moved with me. So imagine my concern when, three years and many drafts into my novel, my husband and I decided we’d be leaving Miami and moving to Austin, Texas.

I welcomed the change of setting in my life, but worried about what it’d mean for my fiction. My book is set in present-day and 1980s Miami. The cultural diversity, weather, and mood of a city that’s constantly in transition as people come and go, trying to create homes for themselves, is an important backdrop for the narrative.

Would writing about Miami from a distance dilute my ability to portray it?

           

I decided I didn’t want to find out. My move date became my deadline for the final draft of my book.

Every day, I’d wake up a few hours early and work on revisions and new scenes, then gather cardboard boxes and pack up our apartment. I told myself that before we left, I’d take pictures of the beaches, and the sunsets, and the buildings I passed on the way home every day. I’d go to city hall. I’d study old newspapers and pictures of the neighborhoods where my characters lived. I’d find out if their street had a traffic light or just a stop sign. I’d take note of the weather patterns from 1984-1989.

           

If you’ve ever moved out-of-state (and tried to hire movers only to realize you’d be better off packing and loading and driving the truck those 1,300 miles yourself) then you know I never got around to any of that. I arrived in Texas with a partially revised draft and a fear that memory alone wouldn’t be enough to help me finish it.

Several months and revisions later, I met my writers group—three women who had never been to Miami and called Texas home. I handed my draft to them for feedback and hoped that the details in my story would transport them further than the nearest gas station.

           

It did, but not for the reasons I was expecting.

They didn’t care what highway or exit my characters took to get from one house to another. They noticed the parrots that flew across a bridge at sunset, and the hot pink sky that I’d taken for granted. They imagined the air in the summertime, heavy and moist and foreboding, sticking to their skins. They paid attention to how the characters greeted one another—always with a kiss on the cheek—and said it helped them understand the city’s culture.

These things were so ingrained in my experience of Miami that I’d written them without realizing they were part of the setting. To me, they just were, in the way that home is a place that never leaves you.

When I look at it now, moving was a gift for my writing. This new life didn’t just give me time to complete my book, it gave me a chance to fall back in love with my hometown in a way I hope readers will.

Have you ever tried long-distance writing? What were the challenges or benefits?
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Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-born Miamian now living in Austin. She studied creative writing and journalism at the University of Miami, then worked in magazines for a bit before deciding to freelance full-time. Her first novel, told partially from the point of view of a house that a woman inherits, was originally set in Orlando, Florida, before Natalia decided to bring it closer to home. Visit her writing blog at www.nataliasylvester.com(where she tries to make sense of this journey) or follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/NataliaSylv

Comments

  1. Ann says:

    Hello Natalia! I like the way you considered a long distance relationship with your setting! I’m not technically a “writer” so I don’t quite face your dilemma.

    I am, however, a foodie and food blogger who recently made a dish of Sicilian antipasto. ….and you are absolutely right! The important things move with you! While I was making the food – all the things that make Sicily what it is came rushing back!

    I hope you enjoy Texas. I’ve only visited, but it’s a fine state and I love the Texan Pride!

  2. Cynthia Robertson says:

    Well, yes, I would say writing about England – where I have never set foot- and the past 1000 years ago – where I’ve also never been – would probably qualify as ‘long distance’. LOL!
    But jesting aside, I felt the same way when I left Italy for the last time…I wanted to capture everything, but moving is an all consuming task. I would say your writing friends have the right of it, Natalia; you carry Miami inside you, and it will come out in the things you choose to focus on in your writing, conciously or not.
    Can’t wait to read your novel!!

  3. Hi Ann, that’s not surprising that Sicilian food brought you back. Don’t you just love how scents and tastes can transport us so vividly? It’s a stronger memory trigger than sight or sound for me. (And yes, Texas pride is something else entirely. I’ve got to admit I’ve fallen in love with it.)

    Cynthia, you are a brave soul! I’m sure your fascination with the era and setting of Medieval England will be contagious to readers. You’re right that it comes out, consciously or not. I’m just glad I got to appreciate things I might’ve otherwise taken for granted about Miami.

  4. So funny Julia and Natalia, my post today relates as well. I’d set every story and novel in Chicago (where spent my childhood). I’ve lived in Minnesota for 11 years and only very recently started toying setting a novel here.

    Great post Natalia!

  5. A double dose of Natalia today. Lovely! Wow … I could have written parts of this post – particularly the fear that moving away would make my writing of setting less realistic.

    I have to confess that, having lived in Arizona for 13 years, I HAVE forgotten so many of the little details of my home state of Pennsylvania … like the names of the weeds, when certain crops were planted, what time the sun set, what month you started to hear the tree frogs. Funny how you forget THOSE things. But, as you say – the important feelings of home, the emotions, the “feel” of home … it never leaves, does it? (And fortunately for me, my mom is more than willing to fill in those gaps when I’m working on PA-based settings. Plus -it’s always a good excuse to get home for a “research” trip!)

  6. Nina, that’s so interesting that it took 11 years for you to start writing about Minnesota. It sounds like Chicago really stayed with you! I think I share a similar connection with Miami…despite all the moving around my family did as a child, Miami was like our home base. We got there in 88, left in 93, then came back in 96. Even though we were only gone 3 years, they were very significant years for 12-year-old me, so in a way, I felt like I was always trying to get back there.

    Melissa, I had no idea you’re originally from PA. Your love and fascination for AZ comes out so much in everything you write, that I’d figured you’d lived there much longer. It’s kind of comforting, actually. Ever since moving, I’ve wondered if I’ll ever know or love a place like I do Miami. Don’t get me wrong–I love Austin, but it feels like Miami is that “first love.” Maybe there’s room for more than one :)

  7. Thanks for introducing us to yet another great blogger. I’m heading over to her page now to read more. I think I remember you mentioned her back in March too.

  8. Hi Natalia! Nice to see you over here at wordsxo! :) I loved learning more about your thoughts on home. I checked out your link to your blog post about it as well.

    I grew up about three blocks away from Chicago, and lived in the same house until I was in my 20’s. So I have a very strong sense of home being Chicago (and yes, my WIP is set here). But for the first three years of my marriage (back in 95) I lived right outside of MIami, and I will forever keep that experience tucked away in my heart. Miami made a strong impression on me, b/c it was so different than Chicago. (So, SO different!) I’ve toyed with the idea of having it be the setting for a novel, but when I went back there to visit in 2005, everything had changed (including the whole South Beach culture), and I felt like a stranger there. I can’t imagine how different it is today—six additional years later. The thing about Miami is it always felt so transient to me, like people were coming and going, but not a lot of people stayed or were born & raised there. Yet, to you, it felt like your home base. I think that’s so cool how we all take away different perspectives from our life experiences!

    Anyhow, I can’t wait to read your novel and immerse myself back in the Miami setting, through you! The premise for your book is very intriguing to me!

    Barb

  9. Great post! This is one of the small, overlooked, yet oh-so-important details on a good novel, IMO. Not that the traffic lights snippets can’t add a touch of realism, too, kind of a “hey, I used to go in that drugstore, too” but the parrots and the FEEL of the place. I love experiencing another place through the sensuality of a good writer including those details.

    Thanks, Natalia, and thanks Julia for hosting her here.

  10. eeleenlee says:

    This is a useful post when a writer has had little contact (different from *experience*) of a setting. You’re right that a certain location stays with you inside no matter what.

  11. That is quite a journey, Natalia. I think I knew some of this, but some of it is a surprise. Makes me want to read your novel, naturally. :-)

    For me, setting is weird because I write SF or fantasy, and I have to make it up, or base it on real-life circumstances and set it in outer space!

  12. Lisa Ahn says:

    What a great post Natalia. I think the places, people, and events that have settled into our bones are sometimes easier to write from a distance. As you say, pieces float back that we didn’t even know we owned. For my current novel, some of the setting was familiar, but from 20+ years ago. It was the colors that came back the most. Those sensory details. The rest was research, which I also love. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I look forward to your novel and a taste of Miami.

  13. Barb, Miami truly has changed, especially in the past 10 years, but somehow it manages to retain its unique flavor! You’re right that it’s very transient. Asking someone where they’re from is one of the most common conversation starters, and no one ever expects someone to answer that they were born and raised there :)

    Beverly, it’s interesting that the traffic lights snippets might add authenticity to someone who’s been in a place (maybe producing a kind of “inside joke” effect)…but I guess the real challenge is making someone who’s never been there feel like they have. Like you put it, it’s all about experiencing the feel of a place.

    Leah and Eeleenle, thanks so much for saying hi and stopping by my blog as well! It’s great to meet you both.

    Mahesh, I am constantly baffled by how far a SF or fantasy writer’s imagination can go. I’m sure if I even tried to create another planet or universe, it’d be a concoction of all the places I’ve ever lived, lol!

    Lisa, I guess it’s like they say: we don’t know what we have until we don’t have it. I needed that distance to get the bigger picture. For too long, I’d been looking at my setting through a microlens. I’m glad the colors and sensory details of your setting stuck with you the most…that’s where the good stuff is anyways :)

  14. Natalia, Thank you again for this lovely guest post! I have written long-distance about several places I’ve lived so I know the challenges; still, you talk about it in such an inspirational way — beautiful!

    To all commenters, Thank you so much for all your lovely comments for Natalia, as well as your visits to my blog! I hope you’ll be back soon and continue to read Natalia’s posts at her blog, too!

  15. I’ve loved hanging out here, Julia! Thank you so much for having me :)

  16. My writing takes place in a place that doesn’t exist, but is heavily influenced by places I have lived. They no longer exist, not as they did at that time (the year is never stated, but internal evidence tells readers that it’s in the past: no computers, no cell phones). I guess I carry them with me, as Hemingway said of Paris in the 1920s.

    Most of my characters are from other places, glad to be away from “home” (true of the people Hemingway met in Paris, also, come to think of it). The problem with “home,” for many people, is that’s where the family is, which is often a big reason people go somewhere else.

  17. Hi Anthony, you’re so right to bring time into it, and of course that requires an altogether different form of travel! I think it’s wonderful that you capture the places you’ve lived in their past versions. Sometimes cities and towns grow so fast, we forget what made them feel like home in the first place.

    Speaking of Hemingway in Paris in the 20s…have you seen Midnight in Paris?