We just spent a week on Long Island at a birthday celebration for a friend’s mother. It’s a beautiful place, and we had a fantastic time, but thanks to our friends we also learned a thing or two and avoided some obvious pitfalls.
It got me thinking about how many opportunities there must be for a writer to use setting to distinguish locals from outsiders, and to create location-specific plot points or conflicts.
Based on last week’s discussions, here are some tells that marked us out as Long Island rookies.
Our friends chartered a boat and we went fishing in the bay between South Shore and Fire Island. Everyone else aboard was local, and they’d all been fishing since childhood. I had to be shown everything: how to hold the rod, how to let out the line and reel it in again. I didn’t know I should reel in my line when the captain was ready to move on. I didn’t know the difference between a sea robin and a fluke. I had no idea which fish should be thrown back or which were edible. The crew was friendly and helpful, but openly astonished at my ignorance of the most basic fundamentals.
My friend’s mum said that Fire Island supposedly got its name for the poison ivy that’s ubiquitous over there. Cue reminiscences from the family about how painful a poison ivy allergic reaction can be. Also poison oak. Eek. We don’t have either plant over here, and I have no clue what either one looks like.
We had to be warned that there are deer ticks in the long grass and dunes. They carry Lyme disease, so it’s an important thing to know. I have no idea what a tick looks like. They’re present in the UK, but it’s a relatively new problem for us, and right now seems to be a bigger problem for pets than humans. I have never seen one, nor do I know anyone who has. I have no idea how to check myself for ticks, how to remove one if I should find it, or what a tick bite would look like. Just writing this is making me itch.
I’ve never seen a raccoon. I know they’re scavengers who will raid the trash cans, but I had no idea their claws are really sharp and that they can (and do) cut neatly through screen doors to get at the good stuff inside a house.
In the spirit of reciprocity, here are some nuggets of London/UK knowledge that are instinctive to me but might catch out a visitor. We don’t have much in the way of extreme bugs, critters, or weather, but this is what I came up with:
The Thames is tidal
There can be a big difference between high and low tide water levels in the River Thames, even in places like Putney, which is about seventy miles from the sea. Locals park their cars on the riverbank at low tide, but the unwary visitor can return to find his vehicle expensively waterlogged. It happened to a friend of an American work colleague of mine, back in the day.
We drive on the left
Which makes crossing the road dangerous for anyone living in a right-hand-driving country (and vice versa). Looking the wrong way is deeply ingrained, and very hard to overcome.
We stand on the right
One of the quickest ways to infuriate a Londoner is to stand on the left side of an escalator on the Underground (the Tube). If you want to stand, that’s what the right side is for. If you want to rush up or down the escalator at top speed, you take the left. Visitors occupying this side to chat with a friend are liable to get mown down, or at least growled at.
We have pollen
Britain is a beautiful country, but between the green buds of spring, the blossoms of summer, and the hayfields of early autumn, it can be hell on people with allergies. Years ago we met a Sherpa who was faster than a mountain goat at altitude in his native Nepal, but had to fight for every breath at harvest time near his home in the Welsh borders.
The best use of local knowledge in a book that I can think of is Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful, which is set near Matlock Bath in Derbyshire, a place I know very well. She uses the setting to brilliant advantage. Near the end of the book (spoiler!) the heroine’s father escapes his kidnapper, because he recognizes, as the kidnapper does not, that the topography of the landscape very likely denotes that the man is standing on a disused mineshaft.
Sometimes we don’t know what we know, until some clueless outsider blunders into our corner of the world and lands themselves in trouble.
What’s particular to your home?