Setting aside the ongoing argument about whether art imitates life or life imitates art—because I think we can all agree there’s a simpatico relationship between the two—I’d like to talk for a moment about those times when art must imitate life. For pragmatic purposes, I believe there’re times when, as a writer, you have to lean on a non-fictional backdrop so you can build your fictional world.
The setting for my latest novel, 101, is a pot farm in Humboldt County in Northern California. Now, the jungles of Humboldt aren’t a place you can easily use Google maps to load your palate. And even if you try, it’s hard to fill in the minutiae; what kind of trees, plant life, and other details of flora and fauna.
I have some friends who’ve been in that business for a long time and I was able to go up the 101 and venture into the hills for a true taste of the grower’s life. So when it came time to write the book, I decided it’d be easiest to use the cabin where I stayed and the weed plots around it for the actual floor plan of the novel.
I’d done this before—as I’m sure many of you have—used an apartment I lived in or a house I stayed as the floor plan for fiction. It’s important for the author to really know the details, even if they aren’t revealed in the story. Just like knowing the whole backstory for a character can give shape and depth even if the character’s backstory isn’t revealed (or is cut.)
In 101, it was more than just the cabin’s floor plan, it was the whole side of a mountain. From the exit off the 101, up the winding dirt roads, to the tiny farm where I stayed, I used the whole thing. Now, I didn’t map out the roads, but the general feel for the bends, the look of the neighboring farms and fences, and which side the sun rose and set, were crucial elements in tattooing the setting on my brain. Once the picture is set in my own mind, I can paint the picture for the reader.
Of course the reader won’t see the same thing I see—that is, after all, the beauty of writing and reading—but the more complete that picture is in the author’s head, the easier it is to describe and communicate the action to the reader. And that’s what it’s about, not reproducing every little detail, but bringing the reader along with you on the story, the action.
At the end of 101, there’s a lot of activity that takes place at a biker’s house in the city of Alameda, right beside Oakland. For that I used the house of my pal, Alameda Mark. His house is an unusual place and doesn’t really fit in with the surrounding buildings, but I know it inside and out, so when a lot of action breaks out, you have a clear idea of where the bullets fly, what doors will swing in what direction.
This may seem kind of obvious, but when you really begin choreographing an action scene, it’s these small details that give it plausibility, thus authenticity. It’s one of those subtle things that support the action right under the story. I liken it to the drummer in a good band. You don’t always notice if the drummer is tight and right on time, but if he’s off, you definitely notice. It feels loose and it’s hard to get into. The song and the story.
Of course, it’s easy to invent a setting, and there’s plenty of imagined sets in 101, but I don’t know if the picture—that floor plan—is as clear to the reader as ones I borrowed from my life. The reader may not see the same tattered blue couch in my biker’s house in Alameda, maybe they’ll see a red couch. But if there’s a hallway with three bedrooms on the right and a bathroom at the end, the reader will know—especially if there’s someone hiding in that third bedroom with a .45 pointed at the door.
Here’s the thing about writing advice, it often seems obvious or simple. But like a lot of ideas we prescribe to, it’s important to be reminded of the basics. Whether it’s Buddhism or AA, knife throwing or knitting, it’s the practice of principals that keep you on track.
Bio: Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of AMERICAN STATIC, HUSTLE, and the novellas PIGGYBACK and KNUCKLEBALL. His new novel, 101, is out now with Down & Out Books.
Author photo by Mark Krajnak.