Six impossible things

Not from Around Here

Lurker, I’ll get to your crowd post next.

Every so often, I am reminded that not everyone lives in Minnesota. I was reminded of this forcibly a few years back at a fabulous Minicon panel at which five editors graciously consented to, in essence, read slush for an audience. The idea was that they would take Page One of various stories that folks had submitted and then each of them would say whether they would read further or reject the story, and why.

It was a really remarkable panel, and I sat there nodding through the first three or four submission-explanations, until they got to the one set on the first day of a summer camp in the north woods, where the head councilor was lecturing campers about not feeding the bears. The editorial feedback began with an editor complaining that the situation was totally unbelievable; nobody would build a summer camp where there were bears, and if they did, nobody would send their children to it.

She was taken aback when almost the entire audience burst into laughter, because if you are going to build a summer camp in the Minnesota woods, you’d have considerable trouble finding a place that doesn’t have any bears around. Heck, the city of Duluth routinely has problems with bears scavenging at the city dump, and at least one got as far south as the Twin Cities in the last twenty years, if I remember the news reports correctly.

This comes to mind because I’ve spent the last week working on the first chapter of The New Thing, and most of that chapter is set at the Minnesota State Fair. (Which cleverly gave me an excuse to visit the fair three times during its twelve-day run, gorging on fried olives-on-a-stick, cheese curds, Sweet Martha’s cookies, and other traditional State Fair foods, as well as spending lots of time in the Creative Arts building and wandering around the Midway…but I digress.)

The Minnesota State Fair is a really big deal around here; everybody knows about it, even those who’ve never been in their lives. It’s on every TV station and radio show (most local stations have a booth at the fair and do at least some of their broadcasts from there while the fair is going on). It’s inescapable.

Most of my readership, however, does not live in Minnesota. They don’t know about the “food on a stick” tradition (which includes everything from common stuff like corn dogs and cotton candy to deep fried pickle, lobster, and fudge), or about numerous other fair traditions like the butter heads and crop art. And as if that were not enough, there is one other important consideration.

Neither my editors nor my agent live in Minnesota.

What all this means is that using the State Fair as a setting for Chapter One is a fairly tricky balancing act. On the one hand, I have oodles of real-life material. On the other hand, some of it is likely to raise questions from my editors if I don’t handle it right (fried crocodile on a stick? Really?). On the third hand, I’m only setting the first chapter at the fair; after that, everybody goes Elsewhere, and I don’t want the fair itself to be so interesting that my readers are disappointed when they get to the other world where they’re going to spend the rest of the book.

And honestly, coming up with an Elsewhere that is weirder and more wonderful than the Minnesota State Fair is hard.

So the task boils down to writing a Chapter One in which I 1) portray the fair’s weirdness accurately, 2) but in a way that is convincing and believable for people who aren’t familiar with it, while 3) not making it too interesting compared to the rest of the book.

This can be harder than it sounds. Several times over the past umpty years, I’ve read books where the writer did a brilliant portrayal of a part of the country they knew well (Georgia, North Dakota, small town Manitoba, south Florida, Arizona), and then veered off into a more-or-less standard Magic World that was much less well-realized…and consequently, much less interesting to me, as a reader. (In most cases, the reviewers agreed with me on that score.)

The problem, I think, was that the writer was so familiar with the place that to them it was not interesting – it was just an ordinary spot that they wanted to escape, preferably as quickly as possible. Whereas for their readers, it was the fantasy world that they’d seen before, and the real-world setting that was new and strange and fascinating.

Writers need to be aware of this on two counts: First, things they take for granted (like bears and fried-crocodile-on-a-stick) may not seem believable to readers who aren’t from around here (wherever “here” is), and therefore, may need more setup and clarity than the writer expects; and second, incorporating some of the ordinary, everyday, uniquely local traditions into one’s fantasy world may make it a lot more interesting to those same readers.

Now all I need is a reason for people in my other world to dress llamas in costumes and eat deep fried Twinkies-on-a-stick…

18 Comments
  1. Excellent post. I’ve never really thought about things like this before, but it completely makes sense.

    I had a similar situation with my book that takes place on another planet. At one point I have the characters, who are anthropomorphic animals, drinking coffee. One of my beta readers found this really confusing, because she wasn’t sure how Earth was connected to my planet, Zyearth. I just took it for granted that people would drink coffee without really thinking about where they’d GET it.

    Facts and settings should never be taken for granted.

  2. Not being from around there, I must confess to some puzzlement about the crocodile. Do they ship it in from Florida for the occasion? And how on earth did that get started?

  3. Speaking of known worlds…

    Isn’t it nice to have an inner Quaddie? Because “on the one hand… on the other hand…on my left foot…” just doesn’t have quite the same ring as “on my third hand”.

    This is right on the heels of a mental double take from yesterday. I listen to TV while doing mindless mechanical stuff. Project Runway is one of my favorites because they’re always talking about something (police procedurals are also good for this, but I digress). Anyway Tim Gunn, mentor, teacher, and fashion guru who comes off as very mainstream actually used “you two need to mind meld” while reviewing and commenting on the outfits in progress during a team challenge.

    • Quaddy? I have as many hands as I need — six, seven, eleven — metaphorically.

  4. Mmmmm … deep fried Twinkies-on-a-stick. I could go for that! We have a festival in Montana called the Sweet Pea Festival, and it’s a pretty big deal. The first time I brought my husband back and told him that I absolutely *had* to get a Pucker Sucker, he gave me the weirdest look of our marriage. (It’s a lemon with a hole drilled into it. You put a large peppermint stick in the hole and drink the lemon juice through it like a straw. Sounds weird, but it’s delicious). I always thought they were a real thing, and didn’t know that most people had never heard of it. I’ve always wanted to set a story in MT because I know it so well. My next one will probably be there.

  5. Yum, cheese curds. But do they make poutine with them? That’s the best way to consume them!

    Fried olives on a stick I hadn’t heard of, but they sound like an excellent combination cholesterol/sodium bomb food 🙂

  6. fried olives-on-a-stick

    Oh, man, I have got to get to the Minnesota State Fair one of these years. 😉

    Green or black olives? (Either is good.)

    • At the LA County Fair, we have deep fried Coca Cola. Don’t ask me how they deep fry a liquid. I’ve been totally unable to figure that out.

  7. At least some other states also have State Fairs! The North Carolina State Fair was always one of the highlights of the year for me, and the kickoff to the holiday season (it takes place in Oct.; the idea of a summer State Fair is very weird to me). Then in college I got to go to both the Carolina State Fairs about a week apart :-). Good times. I’ve been living in other parts of the country for most of the past decade so I haven’t gone much recently, but I’ve moved back and will definitely be going this year!

    We don’t have butter heads or dressed-up llamas (although there may be some llamas with the rest of the livestock exhibits), but there is lots of deep-fried food, though not usually on a stick. (One year they had deep-fried Coke — don’t ask.) They had live (and probably mistreated) elephants for kids to ride for years; maybe still do though I hope not. They do still have the duck races and the HUGE variety of rides and games, plus the agricultural exhibits (pumpkins the size of a washing machine!). Also all the food and craft contest entries displayed with the ribbons pinned on — you don’t know you’ve won until you go and look from the sidelines like everyone else, or at least that’s how it was when I was in high school. Lots of live performances as well, although my family never spent much time at those.

    So nothing you’ve said about the Minnesota State Fair sounds implausible to me, even if it’s not exactly the same as the State Fairs I’m used to. I’m really looking forward to the book, and I’m also considering a trip to the Fair next year. 🙂

  8. I know there is a State Fair every year in California, but it’s up in Sacramento where nobody I know would go if they didn’t have to (lousy weather and the State government). I have no idea what they serve on a stick, if anything.

    And I don’t know if we have summer camps that you actually go away to and camp out at … I’ve never met anyone who went to one. The best we got was Brownie Day Camp, 9 to 5 M-F, and we slept at home as usual.

    I’m sure there are many venues in California that would seem weird to inhabitants of other states, but of course I grew up here and can’t think of any.

  9. The Illinois State Fair also has all food fried and on sticks. Sounds completely normal to me! 🙂

  10. Hmm. World building to think about. I’ve got little cafe-type places, at least in one city, but I hadn’t thought about “street food,” either on a stick or otherwise.

  11. As a Canadian the idea that you *wouldn’t* have to worry about bears at a summer camp also made me laugh! Though I have some Toronto friends who would be just as confused by the idea, I expect. Maybe people from Montreal, too. Everyone else? Bears.

    Cougars, now, are something you don’t expect. Unless you live in Calgary …

    • I live in Kamloops near the university, and I occasionally see deer. This is about a mile from the downtown core. Kamloops has a population of about 85,000.

      One April Fool’s issue had a headline of “Cougar sighting near Heroes pub”. That was just barely possible. That pub is near the wild (as in wildlife) part of campus. But the sub was “First-year male students unable to handle hot older women”.

      Do bears attend the Minnesota State Fair?

      • The Golden Gate Bridge (linking San Francisco to Marin County, California) was brought to a standstill the other day by a couple of deer walking along it, *from* San Francisco *to* Marin. God knows where they came from. Drivers slowed to a crawl to avoid hitting them, and slowly, slowly followed them north. (Where the deer ran off into the hills and the cars continued into San Rafael.)

  12. FWIW, fried food (frequently on sticks) is very common at the San Diego County Fair. One year they had fried sticks of butter, which was delicious for the first bite, and somewhat less delicious for each subsequent bite (it got to be too much real fast).

  13. I live in a suburb east of Seattle and we’ve just had our annual alerts in the local papers on what to do when a bear wanders through the neighborhood. This is the season when the young bears come down out of the mountains. Minnesota isn’t the only area to deal with bears.

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