I was inspired by Lea Waite’s post extolling the beauty of Maine to consider how being a notable tourist destination may alter the way “natives” think about their home place. I’ve lived in Vancouver WA for half a century now, so I may be considered at home here, yet every once in a while I’m reminded that I’m not a local product, that my appreciation of the area is shaped by ideas about it that are not based on personal experience.
Vancouver lies north, across the Columbia River, from Portland OR and serves it as a bedroom. When I first started teaching here and asked my students to go to Portland State University to use the library there, some of them balked. They had lived eighteen whole years in Vancouver and never gone to Portland though they’d driven through it on Interstate Five. They were afraid they’d be mugged if they went into the big city five minutes away from home. I was pitiless. I told them I thought they’d survive. Some of them dropped the class.
Their concept of Portland was a gross simplification drawn from television news, the prejudices of their friends and relatives, and a handful of negative events. Suppose they had drawn their view of Portland from the image projected by the Chamber of Commerce, Triple A Guidebooks, and television coverage of the annual Rose Festival parade. That image would have been appealing, even seductive, but it would have been at least as much a simplification as their Wicked City nightmare.
Neither Portland nor Vancouver is a tourist destination in the sense that Maine and, say, Hawaii are. It’s unlikely that a honeymoon couple would sue their travel agency if it rained here–as apparently happened after a less than idyllic honeymoon in Hawaii. Darned good thing too. We do get rained on.
If a fiction writer sets a novel in a place like Hawaii, how should the writer deal with the readers’ probable preconceptions about the place? My current mystery series (Latouche County) is set in a National Scenic Area between two national forests, within viewing distance of three Fujiyama-class volcanic peaks, and, of course, on the banks of a river that makes the Tiber look like a trickle. When I first began to research the Columbia Gorge as a setting for my mysteries, I wondered how people who lived there full-time could get any work done with natural beauty intruding every time they went outdoors.
I don’t know that I solved the problem, but I did try. I used the viewpoint of a newcomer to the area in the first book (Buffalo Bill’s Defunct) so that moments of scenic rapture would be plausible. In the second (An Old Chaos) I mucked up the weather beyond the tolerance of skiers let alone tourists. The third mystery (Beyond Confusion) has guide-bookly moments but focuses on the Latouche Regional Library. In fact, I put emphasis on work and the grotesqueries of daily life in all the books. My characters, like the people who live and work in the Gorge, have their minds on things other than the catalog of Chamber of Commerce delights. And my characters are braver than my students.