You’ll pardon me a bit today, I hope. The Big Game is on tonight, and I’m a bit distracted. It’s All Broncos, All The Time around here right now. Half of the people you see walking around anywhere are wearing orange and blue. Yesterday I found the grocery store packed, with everyone doing what I was doing – buying snacks and chicken wings. We can’t help it. We’re Colorado, and this is our team. Go Peyton! Not that Cam Newton isn’t a hell of a nice guy and all, but as we like to say around here, “If God doesn’t love the Broncos, then why are our sunsets orange?”
This also means that our local paper was digging through the archives, pulling up interesting stories from years past when the Broncos were in the Super Bowl. Being a Woman of a Certain Age, I find it amusing that the throwback stuff from the 70’s still seems fresh and new to me. I mean, wasn’t that just last year?
One of the throwback stories was a recipe from 1978 for an “Orange Cake.” And the photo with the original article puts the cake in the hands of a woman dressed in a plaid shirt, sitting on a lichen-covered rock with a background of pine trees and blue sky. I can hear the conversation that took place before this picture was taken.
“Delores, we’re gonna have to ask you to meet us up in Rocky Mountain National Park with that cake, so we can get a decent picture.”
(photo courtesy of the Denver Post, photographer Bill Johnson. Model was food editor Helen Dollaghan.)
Because if we’re in Colorado, we must all live in the mountains, and all of our pictures will show pine trees, rocks, mountains, and blue sky. I’ve lived here for five years. I do not live in the mountains, although I live very close to them (less than six miles). I spend a lot of time in them and have taken plenty of pictures of myself on rocks, with pine trees and blue sky in the background. But I’m not carrying cake around in the mountains. Because Magpies love cake. And we’d all die. Kind of like what happens on the beach with seagulls when you decide you are going to eat your lunch.
What does any of this have to do with writing? I like to think many of our preconceived notions about any geographical locale is formed by what we’ve heard, or by what media has portrayed over the years. If I think of California, I think of Venice Beach. I’ve never been to Venice Beach. There are only two places in California I have been – San Diego and the San Jose area. Neither of those places look like Venice Beach. But my memories are full of images of people roller-skating on a sidewalk with the beach and the ocean nearby. Accurate? Hardly. When I think of New York, I think of tall buildings and streets where the sun never reaches the ground. When I think of Texas I think of cowboy hats and cattle walking the streets. Mexico looks like a small adobe village, with a church, two cantinas, a big stone fountain in the middle of town, and women wearing colorful swirling skirts.
Those are nothing more than ideas that have ended up in my head because they were portrayed to me that way in the first place. Accurate or not, there they are. Is that picture of the orange cake in the mountains even close to accurate? Funny, but definitely not accurate.
Are we doing this to our characters when we write? How realistic are our settings, our locations? Are we taking the time to do some research, so that our locations feel “real?” Can we mix the accuracy of the location with the need for some poetic license before we set our characters in our scenes? I know that now that I live in Colorado, that old draft of a novel set in Colorado is in serious need of a location overhaul. I made a lot of assumptions, even though I had done some research. I was pretty off-base. Like the picture of the orange cake – now that I live here, that picture seems wholly ridiculous. Not that we don’t bake cakes in the mountains (I live at altitude, and I definitely bake cakes). But we don’t all have a rock-pine-blue-sky backyard. The picture makes me laugh at its silliness. And I know I don’t want readers laughing at my locations in my stories. Silly is not really what I’m going for, for the most part.
Not that we shouldn’t or don’t want to idealize our locations in our novels to best effect. But we should be keepin’ it real.
Now, who wants some orange cake? Go Broncos!