A recent post on the editorial page of the Boston Globe had me scratching my head.
What first caught my eye was a big image of the book cover of Jamaica Plain, a book by Colin Campbell, set in (you guessed it) Jamaica Plain. To put this in perspective, if you wanted to put a paid ad with an image that size in the paper, it would cost you big, big bucks. This was free advertising.
Jamaica Plain is a neighborhood of Boston, about four square miles, settled in sixteen-whatever. The opening line of the editorial reads "Colin Campbell has never set foot in Jamaica Plain, and it shows." The editor accuses Campbell of putting a raunchy nightclub in a sedate neighborhood, among other sins. He's defending Jamaica Plain, and that's good. He may also be a little miffed at Campbell for being an Englishman and writing about Boston.
I've met the author at a conference, and he's charming and funny and very clearly English—and I'm not talking snob English. He's writing fiction, about an English cop in Boston. Let me tell you: I live a whole heck of a lot closer to Jamaica Plain than he does, and I couldn't find anything there if you paid me. I think I've been there, but I'm not even sure.
Okay, I'm not the one writing about it. The real places I write about I usually (but not always) know pretty well. I can tell you where the main streets and buildings are. I can tell you how to take public transit, if there is any. I can tell you what a blizzard or a drought looks like there, or what kinds of shops and homes line the streets. I can usually tell you something about the history of the place and why it looks the way it does.
Why does it matter?
I have heard it said that a writer has an unwritten contract with the reader, to be as accurate as possible about whatever he or she writes, be it geography or forensics or accents. When you're writing about real places, how much do you owe the reader? Can you insert a building where there is now an empty lot? Can you rename major monuments? Can you change the direction of the main streets? And how many people will know or care?
Apparently the Globe editor is defending his beloved town, and that's nice of him. At the same time, he must like something about the book or he wouldn't have bothered to mention it at all (and provide all that nice free publicity). Confession: I own the book and have read it. I liked it, and I didn't wonder why the Jamaica Plain police station was here rather than there. It was a good story.
That's the bottom line: just tell a good story.
(Much as I may like the guy and the book, I'm not going to give him any more free publicity. If you want to find out more, look here.)