The Who, the Where and the Wear

Hello everybody! J Monkeys, here.  Happy Saturday.  I’m at a book signing in Thomaston, CT today so I’ll be responding to your voluminous comments later this evening.  If you find yourself in the area stop by Seth Thomas Park and say hello. 

Last week, you may remember, I was on vacation with my family.  I love to travel, always have.  What I like best about going new places, or even places that I’ve been before, but which aren’t home, is the subtle differences.  Little things, succulent flavors for the mind, if you will.  Well, last week, we took the brood to Sesame Place, outside Philadelphia.

Now I’ve been to Philadelphia a bunch of times, most especially when doing research for The Cordovan Vault which is set there.  But for some reason, I’d never noticed a peculiar trait of the drivers on my other trips.  Now, I’m a Nutmegger – born and bred in Connecticut.  We are known as somewhat aggressive drivers.  I’ve lived in New York and in Boston and I think we’re really a bit…let’s call it “less patient”.  But even so, when someone is merging onto the highway and I find myself in the right lane, I do slow down to let him in.  Afterall, while I might be an aggressive driver, I’m not a suicidal driver.  They only have so much space to merge before hitting something and I don’t want it to be me. 

Well, the drivers in Pennsylvania have a different philosophy about merging.  My father (who lived in Pennsylvania for 10 years or so) summed it up thus: They sign says ‘yield’ not ‘surrender’.   These people surrender. They practically stop on the on-ramp.  Several times, I slowed down to well under 40 miles per hour, waiting for them to cut in!  I drive a stick shift and I had to jump back to 3rd gear to get moving again.  Usually with that “merging” car dropping in behind me!

I wondered about this.  And there were signs on the highway that warned drivers to ‘Beware Aggressive Drivers’.  What’s going on in Philadelphia?  I know it’s the City of Brotherly Love, but isn’t this taking it a bit far?  What does this reticence on the highway tell me about the people in this area?  Are they cautious by nature?  Are they more thoughtful than people from Connecticut?  Philly isn’t very far from the Mason-Dixon Line, is this their brand of Southern Hospitality?  I love to think about these kinds of things when I’m creating characters and developing a setting.

These little differences are so interesting to me.  Of course when traveling to other countries the differences are even more noticeable.  John Travolta did a nice speech about this very issue in Pulp Fiction.  Watch from about 40 seconds to 1:30, the clip is a bit long, but it’s got better sound quality than the others I watched.  And Mr. Travolta is absolutely right.  I’ve seen all of those very things he talks about.  And in the south of France, in addition to chicken McNuggets, you can get fish McNuggets.  At a baked potato bar in London, my traveling companion heaped on what she thought was sour cream but turned out to be mayonnaise.  Ewww.  

Here’s a different sort of example of how setting influences character.  Back when I was doing time in Corporate America, we hired an attractive young woman from Miami into an accounting/auditing position.  She was smart and had the proper experience.  Now as I said, she was an attractive woman, but she wasn’t a super-model come to life in our Hartford office – although you wouldn’t have known it watch the mens’ heads turn whenever she walked past.  A few other ladies and I figured out the main difference – she was from a much warmer climate.  Her wardrobe didn’t include things like sweaters, corduroy or…well, sleeves.  She wore flowy, whisper thin dresses, no matter the weather.  And she walked and talked in a flowy sort of way, too.  Don’t get me wrong, she was a perfectly adequate accountant, she just didn’t seem like an accountant.  She seemed…exotic.  Growing up in Miami had shaped her personality, her likes and dislikes.  She could have bought stodgy Connecticut clothes, but she didn’t want to.

Today’s Secret: Think about how setting effects your characters.  Their experiences that make up their personality come in part from their location.

Today’s Question: What other fun location related quirks have you noticed in your travels?

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7 thoughts on “The Who, the Where and the Wear”

  1. So much to think about when developing characters, J. These are great observations. Cultural differences can be huge, or very subtle. Savage Cinderella took place in Georgia, so I wanted to give readers a feel for the south. I think Brinn’s friend Sally Anne was my way of showing the southern hospitality common to folks down that way. She was always polite, even under unusual circumstances. I tried to get across the suspicion and desire for privacy inherent in the hill people there, and it was an essential element in the story that readers “buy into” the fact that people are not always what they seem on the outside. Our southern villain got away with being a creep by appearing to be charming and an upstanding citizen. I didn’t necessarily do this on purpose, but found that as I developed the characters throughout the story, the “southern culture” just seeped in and made sense. Cool post!.

    1. I love these kinds of things – I think it’s part of what makes a character so memorable. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Funny, my friend from NY in the Bear Mountain area complains of Connecticut drivers all the time. She says on her way to work she moves out of their way because they are so aggressive. No we’re not, they’re just too slow! LOl

    1. We do drive fast…I’m on 91 N/S all the time and if I’m going less than 65 miles per hour (the posted max) I honestly feel like I’m going to get squished! Forget about the posted minimum (45) that’s death waiting to happen. I have people speed past me all the time when I’m going well over 75…ahm…maybe I shouldn’t admit to being a speed demon…

  3. Hi J,
    I like to watch people too, especially in places like train stations or airports. You never know when you will find some wonderful little quirk you could use for a character flaw. Fun. Now as for driving … if you think CT drivers are aggressive, you should drive in California!

    1. You know, I’ve only driven in CA once and it was kinda by mistake. I was in Arizona and on our way back to our hotel, we passed a sign that said Welcome Arizona…my thought…when did I leave Arizona?

  4. The thing I want to say about setting is that, for me, it should fade mostly into the background, just be an undercurrent, unless you’re writing a very literary novel in which the setting becomes a character in itself (Ethan Frome, for example). For today’s readers I think we have to be careful not to overdo setting and dialect and local details — it gets very distracting, very fast, for a reader. I just read some popular historical fiction that did this, and it felt to me like the author was trying to prove how much period research she (or her assistant) had done. All she succeeded in doing is making those details stick out like a sore thumb and feel like a commercial for certain products that were available after WWI. I still enjoyed the book, but it was diminished for me a little bit by the heavy-handed use of details.

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