Location, Location, Location [or, what I learned in LA about writing in Texas]
Location, Location, Location
[or, what I learned in LA about writing in Texas]
I’ve never been good at summarizing an idea into a pithy elevator pitch or logline. And in the film biz, being able to do just that—verbally at the drop of a business card—is pretty darned important. You’d think I’d have eventually gotten that down, at least per project as needed, but never. It is simply not in my skill set and not until I had an agent and manager doing it for me, did I ever manage to [eventually] get it right.
Which is why I was in a meeting with Polly Platt and found myself floundering when she asked me the very no-brainer question, “So, what’s your new script about, the one you’re working on now?”
First of all, I was writing a script in which ‘weird shit happens’ and was having a heck of a good time writing it, but I had no idea how to describe its premise. I didn’t even know I was writing science fiction until a year later, in another meeting, I was asked, “So, have you always loved SF?”
To which I answered, “Erm… no, I don’t read or watch SF at all.” [No, not even Start Trek. Sue me.]
To which they [assembled producers on other side of table] blinked, exchanged glances and asked, “But you write it?”
At which point I thought, “F*@&, my agent sent somebody else’s script!”
But then they explained to me that scripts in which ‘weird shit happens’ such as what they were loving of mine, are in fact, science fiction.
I wowed everybody in Hollywood, can ya tell?
So yeah, back to Polly. I didn’t even know what I was writing, much less how to describe it. So I blinked and mumbled and she, ever so helpfully, leaned forward and smiled and asked, “Where does it take place?”
Someday I will learn that an honest answer is the best answer, and that despite my panic, the response, “Well, in 11th Century England with swashbuckling and sword fights, and also in mid-40s Manhattan with gangsters and molls,” would have made her sit up and take notice. But instead I panicked, couldn’t figure out how to explain WHY it took place in such widely different places.
Somehow my stumbling around brought the even more specific [meant to be helpful] question, “Well, where does it begin?”
Where it began made no difference. Because it was only there for a few pages, just as a jumping off place to get into those other worlds. And was going to sound boring. “Well, it begins in any generic American city, where doesn’t make a difference and I didn’t name it because—”
At which point she interrupted me and said, “Of course it makes a difference. Any generic city is boring. Be specific. Where are you from? Dallas? Then set it in Dallas. And I want you to put three references in it to Dallas that are so insider, only people from Dallas will get them. But that will make it real, and real for the audience.”
The entire time she’s helping me with this advice, I am thinking wildly, But in this case you’re wrong, because we’re only there for a few minutes at the beginning and the end, and the real story—the fun, weird shit—has nothing to do with Dallas or…
So I let my face light up with that ‘aha!’ and said, “Wow, thank you, that’s great advice!” and then we continued onto other things, because I am not stupid, and I am not going to argue with the person with the checkbook, not to mention the power in that situation, just because she’s wrong. I will save those arguments for things that matter, and this didn’t matter.
But she was so wrong.
I was on my flight back to Dallas going over numerous things that had come up in LA, and started thinking about what she’d said. And of course, how she was wrong. And the fact that I always write WAY too much and have to cut-cut-cut and to do more than establish a generic American setting in the first couple of pages would take extra space/words/dialogue that didn’t support the story in any way.
And then, because I am contrary, I began thinking of the opening of this script.
A guy [a hot guy with a ponytail] who is a hairdresser, whose eyes are practically rolling back in his head except that he’s too professional to let that show, as the ‘middle-aged Buffy’ in the chair rattles on about her problems. [This guy loves women, loves his job, loves making women beautiful, but sometimes he needs a break, needs an all-testosterone, no estrogen allowed time to himself, and he has just hit that moment.]
A girl [a tomboy of a woman] in dirty jeans, pickup truck, owns her own landscaping business, whose hair is a mess and bangs are in her eyes, and she solves it by picking up dirty clippers, using the rearview mirror to cut her bangs off—
And sighs in happy relief to get them out of her face, and gets out of the truck to go into the same place our hot guy hairdresser is going.
So really, do I need to establish what city they are in?
Dallas. How would I make it Dallas, other than an establishing shot of the skyline or some other memorable location?
And then it hit me.
So, well, okay, what if I used an extra few lines—and I mean, maybe two or three, though it will take me longer to describe this here than it did in the script because my brain is not doing its script-shorthand-pithy-voice right now. What if while he’s working on middle-aged Buffy’s hair, we see a wall of headshots over his shoulder? Headshots of big-haired, gorgeous women [Dallas=Texas=big hair in the collective mind, right?] but oh, it gets better, because they are very recognizable because, just as the plaque in the middle says—
Jake is the Official Hair Stylist of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
Can we get more high-maintenance than that? [This is my idea for my movie script, not a judgment or description of any specific Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, and certainly not the fabulous Savannah in the accompanying photo.]
And what have I just told you with that one image?
He’s good. He’s damned good. And he definitely deals with a lot of hot women. And maybe, yeah maybe we will later understand even more clearly why sometimes he needs to be able to say, “Sorry, babe—not my problem,” instead of just thinking it.
And then, because I wanted to also make sure he had some ‘guy’ stuff going on, over his other shoulder, I put a few autographed baseball bats, baseballs, memorabilia—and a framed Dallas Morning News front page:
Rangers Sweep World Series Again!
[Mind you, this was a very insider joke for anybody who knew Dallas or baseball, since at the time they’d never even made it close to the series. Today it’s just a tragic might-have-been.]
In very little space, I had suddenly placed my location specifically in Dallas.
And the script had suddenly gotten more ‘real,’ more dynamic.
And the specifics I chose to accomplish certain concrete things — high maintenance, recognizable women, and local baseball — had lifted a mundane opening into a visually interesting one, while revealing much about the world he lived in, giving context that would enhance the story throughout.
But, wait. Gabby. There was nothing I could do for Gabby that—
Oh yeah. I’d already written this scene where she was on horseback riding along a Cornish cliff, waves pounding on the rocks below, as the villain followed on his stallion. And she had done some rather remarkable things on horseback in order to win the moment, best the villain, and save her own life.
So I went back to her beat-up pickup truck and slapped a few bumper stickers on it: “Mesquite Rodeo,” “Women’s Professional Rodeo Association,” and the ubiquitous [if you’re in cowboy country] “Ride a Cowboy, Save a Horse.” Dallas is not exactly a rural rodeo place, and yet to the southeast within Dallas County is the world famous Mesquite Rodeo. Another aspect of Dallas, just as real as glass skyscrapers and Neiman Marcus.
Without going into any more detail, I can say that the Dallas insider references only came up a couple more times in the story, and yet they fit perfectly, and enhanced the moments in which they were shared—whether these two were shooting at mobsters or fighting villains with poison and swords. The insider bits were funny, unexpected, and gave the bickering duo unexpected commonality in the heat of battle.
In short, Polly Platt was absolutely right.
Whether the location is important [can the mood of New Orleans ever be less than important in a book with a Big Easy setting?] or just background, using a real, specific location gives you power. It gives your story reality, and the wilder the story, the more that foundation of reality is needed. It gives it color. It makes local readers grin with recognition and feel special. And people who don’t know the location don’t have to know it. You don’t have to explain those details, nor should you. I’ve read many a book set in NYC or LA with references to a certain neighborhood or restaurant that I didn’t know, yet I accepted it. Context told me all I needed to know—whether it was seedy or upscale. And I was grateful the author didn’t dumb it down and use excessive backstory or infodump to make sure I understood every single thing.
Believe me, if you mention a specific graveyard in Baltimore, all I really want is the mood and what is specifically relevant about it, as it fits your scene. Being specific never means turning your scene or book into an infomercial or history lesson. But if you say something that makes me curious, and I go look it up and find out it’s real? I will love that. And your other readers will, too.
And if there is a fire starting up at a stake outside the dungeon’s high-grated window, and one of your unwitting Dallas natives, locked in said dungeon, intended burning at said stake, moans to the other, “Somebody’s cooking, I wonder what, God what I wouldn’t give for some Sonny Bryan’s barbecue?”
Your reader will get it, whether they’ve heard of Sonny Bryan or not.
And if they are really old school Dallas, they’ll remember Red Bryan’s Barbecue, the absolute best ever [Sonny’s daddy].
Maybe you’re thinking, “But I’m building a mystery or romance series around a small fictional town that needs to be fictional, so since I’m making everything up, this doesn’t apply to me.”
You still need to ground it in reality. Is this small fictional town in East Texas? Do they get traffic from people between Dallas and Bossier City, on the way to the casinos? [Or more interesting, on the way home from casinos?] Do they have people from Arkansas driving through on their way to the Cotton Bowl, or people from Oklahoma driving through on their way to New Orleans? What are the little details you can include in this town’s tapestry that anchor it in the real world?
Never underestimate the power of ‘location’ in your world and your story.
I am sometimes a slow learner, but I do get there.
Location. Don’t fake it. Make it real.
Thank you, Polly.