I was wandering through a local gift shop recently, a little stunned at how such a large store could have so little I wanted to buy, when I came across a small Maine section. Imagine my delight when I saw notecards with “Augusta, Maine” on them. Not only is it my hometown, but it’s not often celebrated on notecards.
When I took a closer look, I saw the cards had a pastoral coastal scene. Definitely NOT Augusta, Maine. I even took a photo, so you’ll see I’m not making this up:
When I brought it up later to a Portland acquaintance, he said, “So what? It’s Maine. People from out of state don’t care.”
Granted, he’s not a writer. Nor should he be. But here’s a tip if you are an aspiring writer and wondering about setting: “So what, it’s [fill in the blank]” isn’t good enough.”
I’m sure I’ve discussed in this space before the young woman I was talking to at a conference a few years ago who was writing a book set in Maine. She’s never been here, might visit someday. She’s using guidebooks for information.
The notecard made me wonder if that young woman was going to put Augusta in her book and if that Augusta, too, would have a rocky coast with sailboats. That same day, I also bought the Lonely Planet book “The Unique States of America,” hoping to find some tips for a cross-country drive I’m going to do this summer. [Different store, in case you were wondering.]
The first state I turned to in the book was Maine, just to see what unique things about Maine it had for those not lucky enough to live here.
Oh my head. I think whoever wrote the Maine passage used a guide book for the guide book.
It starts out, “The Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., particularly New England, is often thought of as a manicured, developed place, more well-tended garden than untamed, rugged wilderness.” Um, on what lonely planet is your New England? Have we all turned into Connecticut? Who thinks that? Maybe someone who watched a lot of “Murder, She Wrote.” Which was filmed in California, people.
In any case, it goes on to make the case that no, we’re not all lounging in our developed gardens here — “the cliche is blown away in Maine by a salty wind lashing off the Atlantic Ocean over granite sea cliffs that look as raw as the oysters plucked from a cold-water estuary.”
In other words, a cliche I’m not sure is even a cliche is blown away by a cliche that we all live and suffer under. It may not surprise you the recommendations for food are blueberry pie, lobster and “Portland’s food scene.” Wait! Portland has a food scene? Just kidding. I read the paper and watch TV.
On the next four pages all the natural escapes; art, culture and history; family outings are on the coast except for a nod to Baxter State Park. Lonely planet tip: “There’s a good chance you’ll see a moose.” [Maureen tip: I haven’t seen one the last four times I’ve been there]. One tip it doesn’t have is that if you’re planning on driving up in July or August and camping on a whim, you’re not going to get in since it fills up months in advance. But why quibble with those details?
Oh, and, wait for it… there’s a little sidebar about lighthouses. Just in case you wondered but couldn’t find that information anwhere. And, if you’re wondering where to shop, they recommend L.L. Bean. Hmm, they’re going out a limb, but you never know, people just might check it out.
So, apparently the unique things about Maine are the absolutely most obvious things that anyone who knows anything about Maine thinks about Maine.
I know this sounds like a random rant, but really is a writing tip. I’ll get there soon.
I heard an author say recently than an agent told him “Maine is hot.” In the publishing world, not temperature-wise. Though if this winter is any indication, that’s coming.
I wonder, though, which Maine is hot? Is it the one with the lobsters, lighthouses and craggy coast with the salt sea spray, or the 95 percent of the state that doesn’t have those things?
Anyone can do guidebook Maine. Maybe that’s comforting to the rest of the world, and that’s the Maine they want.
But if it’s the latter, come on up and get us, publishers.
There are writers, many of the Maine Crime Writers, who take a lot of pride in making sure Maine gets its due in their books. Some of them even do it while throwing in a lighthouse or two.
Setting is more important to some writers than others, and to some readers than others. As a reader, I get annoyed (go figure) when I read books set in Maine that seem a lot like that notecard or guidebook. Even worse, they keep saying it’s Maine, but it could be anywhere.
As a writer, I wasn’t going to do that. I aim for writing about a Maine that, if you live here, you say, “Yeah, that’s it.” If you’ve never been here — whether you think it’s a manicured garden state (really? I still don’t get that) or a craggy, sea-driven coast — you say, “Ohhhh, that’s what Maine’s like.”
The real Augusta, rather than the Cabot Cove one on the notecard, is an interesting place, full of history, interesting architecture, winding little streets and some neighborhoods that go back more than 200 years. I’m sure you can find some Adirondack chairs and beach roses, but they’d be the least interesting thing you’d find.
But those are just facts and I won’t go into a lot of detail, because you can probably find all of it in guidebooks. To get the texture of the city, or any other place in Maine, or any other place, period, you need to spend some time there and see how it feels.
Instead of that notecard, how about something like this:
Pretend both the notecard and this photo are books. Which one would you pick up and read? If it’s the first one, OK. Enjoy the lobster roll and lighthouse tour. I’ll take the second one, because it’s something that I may not have seen before and I’m curious about what I’m going to find.
Seriously, too, which one would you want to write?
I’m not saying books with lighthouses on the coast of Maine are bad books. I’m not saying writers should only write about places they know. I’m just saying know a place before you write about it. Then find a way to make a reader know it, too.