Jilly: Local Knowledge

How well do your favorite authors use local knowledge to give their stories depth and authenticity? What would you use in a story about your hometown?

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.

Poison Ivy
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?

25 thoughts on “Jilly: Local Knowledge

  1. That’s a difficult question to answer because much of what’s peculiar to your own hometown is transparent to you. Transparent generally only becomes opaque when you go somewhere else and start making comparisons or you get a visitor who runs into your glass walls (as you did on your fishing trip).

    My own home area’s eccentricities became most visible to me when I moved seven hundred miles northwest, to St. Paul, MN. Ohio is far enough north to have clearly defined seasons, but our winter is nowhere near as intense as it is up north.

    o Winter daylight hours here are 8 a.m. to around 5 or 5:30 at the solstice. In St. Paul, it’s more like 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
    o We get snow, but they get SNOW. The last year I lived there, we averaged a foot of snow on the ground from November until May.
    o The weather warms here much sooner–it’s rare to get down in the teens overnight by the first of March here, but they see the teens well into April.
    o Here, it’s unusual for it to get cold enough to solidly freeze ponds and lakes. There, you can throw a rock and hit an ice skating rink. (This is, in part, because there are still bodies of water everywhere. Even little neighborhood parks have sizable ponds.)
    o Here, people kind of roll up the sidewalks and stay indoors from November through March. There, perhaps because winter lasts so long, and because the ice freezes so solid, there’s no break in outdoor activities–ice fishing, ice skating, hockey, skiing and snowmobiling continue through the winter.
    o There are different homeowner skills required there. You need to know to rake the snow off the bottom foot of your roof if you don’t want to wind up with ice dams that back up into your ceilings. And you need to figure out how to rake the last of the autumn leaves after a layer of snow has fallen on them, or risk losing your lawn.

    Your question sent me on a trip down memory lane–and reminded me why I decided to set my third demon book in the Twin Cities. 🙂

  2. Good point about the glass walls. The fishing trip was a prime example. One of the crew said, in a tone of total bemusement, “I never, ever met anyone this green.”

    We went to Finland in winter once, and our guide drove across a frozen lake. Scared me half to death. The ice never gets deep here, and the snow is always melty and slushy. I can’t imagine living with real northern winters. I can see that a person would have to develop a whole new skill set.

    Hope you enjoyed your trip down memory lane! And looking forward to reading about Demons in the Twin Cities 🙂

    • Almost every year in Wisconsin there’s a story of some ice fishing enthusiast who misjudged the thickness of the ice in spring and drove out to catch a few fish but instead broke through the ice and sank his truck. As long as nobody dies, I find this hilarious every time.

      • Ha! As long as nobody got hurt, I agree this is hilarious. And I’m glad I wasn’t totally cracking up by worrying when our guide drove us across the ice in Finland.

  3. The fishing problem is one I see over and over in my day job. They are trying to get elementary school teachers to teach English without any special training in EFL, and many of my teachers have an attitude of, “I’m really bad at English. So, surely, you children can do just as well/poorly as I can!” And then they get frustrated when the kids can’t do what they can do after six to ten years of English language education. They don’t know what they know, and they don’t understand that the kids are absolute beginners.

    I don’t set stories in my childhood home or my adult home very often. Willa Cather moved to Nebraska when she was a young child, and she did a fantastic job of portraying the land and the people. Even though she’s at least 100 years away from my Nebraska (1970s and 1980s Nebraska), I always feel a little homesick when I read her work. It’s very powerful for me, and it seems that it transports people who never have been to Nebraska, as well. What a great writer!

    I do have one story; I wrote it on the computer-before-the-last-one, so I should dig it up and see if it can be polished — and put it somewhere I can access it. It’s a future Nebraska about climate and farming.

    • That makes me feel sorry for the poor kids and the teachers, who aren’t properly equipped for the job they’re being asked to do.

      I’ve never read any Willa Cather, but now I really want to. Do you have any recommendations? She might make good plane reading when I go on vacation later this summer.

      And I’d be very interested to read your future Nebraska story sometime if you feel like sharing. Or maybe you could post it here so we can all enjoy??

      • Thanks! When I get it polished, I’ll ask if you’ve got time to look at it. (-: It’s not a long story.

        Willa Cather: All are rather short books. “My Antonia” was very touching.

        (-: Some of my relatives/ancestors grew up in that area, and had met Willa Cather, according to family legend, but I don’t think any of them made it into the book. The Bohemians in my tree settled elsewhere in Nebraska, and this was the German side of the family.

  4. I’d say the fog is one thing particular to my area. It rolls in from the ocean in the evenings this time of year, leaving the coastal area substantially colder than the towns just a mile or so away on the other side of the hills. Sometimes there can be a 20degree temperature difference.

    I’m not sure if abalone fishing (or maybe harvesting is a better word) happens other places, but it does on the coast here. The season is short, you can only legally retrieve a very small number, and it can be pretty dangerous. Every year, it seems at least one person dies attempting it. I’ve never eaten them, so I don’t know if they’re worth the risk.

    I’m sure there are many things particular to here, but as Jeanne noted, that kind of thing can be rather transparent.

    Oh, I thought of another. Do you have possums (or opossums) in the UK? They look kind of like big ugly rats with long tails. They’re generally harmless and , when frightened, play dead. We see them here on the porch at night along with the raccoons and the occasional skunk. Don’t get me started on the gangs of wild turkeys that have taken to roaming the neighborhoods in recent years.

    • Fog is a good one!

      We don’t have possums/opossums, just regular rats (ugh). We don’t have skunks either. We do have fox cubs that have taken to sunbathing on the roof of our garden shed. Also vermin, but very cute vermin.

  5. I did a mean thing once when I was young that still amuses me. When I was an undergraduate in Wisconsin, I took a class in which was also enrolled a particularly snobbish guy from New York City. According to him, none of us rubes from the Midwest knew anything important, or really, anything at all. Very tiresome.

    One day after a particularly trying class, I decided to see if I could exact some vengeance. So I walked out of class with this guy and told him (flattered him) that he was right about knowledge being local, that lots of people who don’t travel or read about other areas don’t understand the local lore. For example, I said, what most people don’t understand about dairy farming is that the product sold as chocolate milk is naturally colored. Just as different breeds of chickens lay brown or white or even blue eggs, different breeds of cows give different colors of milk. So the black and white Holsteins that people see in photos give white milk, but the brown and white Jerseys or Guernseys give brown milk. The brown milk doesn’t taste different than white milk, but it provides a natural color base for dairies to make chocolate milk, giving the chocolate milk a richer, darker, more attractive appearance than it would have by just adding chocolate alone.

    And he bought it.

    And then about a month later, he called me out on it, so he must have told someone else this story, who set him straight. It was mean of me, but I really loved doing it. I’m a lot more mature than that now, of course.

    • Brown cows, brown milk. White cows, white milk. Perfectly logical. And in theory, the brown milk should have been healthier. The guy totally deserved it. I’d love to think he learned his lesson.

      PS What on earth was a super-sophisticated New Yorker doing in Wisconsin in the first place??

      • I think it was the tear gas. In the very late 1960s and early 1970s, Wisconsin was one of the most radical campuses in the country. Also, it was, for a time, even for New Yorkers, dirt cheap.

  6. And speaking of raccoons, did you see the news story about the raccoon who climbed the 25-story building in St. Paul, Minnesota? We were all very worried about her, but she made it to the top and was caught and released into a greener environment.

    • I’d forgotten about that! No wonder they picked a raccoon to play the animal superhero in Guardians of the Galaxy.

  7. I live in Arizona, but I’m not a native. When I moved here, these were the things I had to learn:
    — water in public green spaces (i.e., watering plants on the side of the road) is not “clean” water, meaning you can’t drink it. However, the water coming out of your hose is okay. (Seriously, I asked my new neighbor when I moved here if I could drink the water from the hose and he thought I was an idiot.)
    — there are lots of “bitey/stingey” things here — scorpions, black widow spiders, fire ants — that like to get into your shoes and other hidey places. Bang your shoes around before you put them on. Always be on the lookout for scorpions. And avoid piles of dirt in the grass…it’s not for playing…it’s an ant mound.
    — water is essential. You always carry it with you. Period. Even in the winter.
    — 85F is the new 70F. We keep our thermostat pretty high, and it still feels cool compared to the 120F outside.
    — shaded parking is more valuable than gold. People will park a quarter mile away from the front entrance to a store if it means parking in the shade.
    — buying frozen groceries in the summer is an effort in futility. It’s usually a bit soft by the time you get home. Deal with it.
    — the ground is filthy in AZ. There’s no rain to “wash” it, so the bottoms of your shoes are black. Take off your shoes when you enter a house.
    — dust storms happen. Don’t be dumb. Go inside when the wind starts to blow and the horizon looks brown.
    — when it does rain, the water will pool quickly. Avoid anything that looks like a stream (crossing a road, whatever), because it could become a raging flood in no time.
    — most folks go through one car battery a year, because they run the A/C all the time. Plan for it.

    That’s most of it. Some people still haven’t learned these things. 🙂

  8. A big tip – never, ever set something in Australia or have an Australian character unless you really know what you’re talking about, or have a local to check it for you. We’re really not England Lite (or USA Lite either).

    Can’t count the number of times I’ve cringed reading cliched Aussies. Even simple things – one dad cooked a Key Lime Pie – apparently it was his signature dish. Now, I’m not saying that noone ever cooks them in Australia – but if you’re missing home, an Aussie would cook a Lemon Meringue Pie.

    • I cringe reading cliched Brits (I love SEP’s books, but her British heroines make my toes curl), so I feel your pain, Anne.

      One of our London Aussie friends said her mother couldn’t wait to get home to Melbourne for a proper shower. Apparently European water is “too harsh”. The same friend always brings Tim Tams back to the UK for her taste of home.

      • Melbourne water is renowned for being soft and clean, whereas Adelaide water is so awful that my mother (who only drinks water, nothing else) got sick when we visited, and Perth water comes out of the ground, which is largely limestone rocks.

        Does London have hard water? I know that my shampoo sometimes doesn’t work as well when I travel.

        Australian cities are quite diverse – they’re spread out across an entire continent, so you can’t expect that something that works in Melbourne also works in Sydney, let alone Darwin!

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