There’s a blog today on The Outfit–A Collective of Chicago Crime Writers, written by David Heinzmann, which grabbed my interest. David mentioned that he was born and raised around Peoria, a solid middle-American town if ever there was one. On a recent visit, he noticed that what once was a lonely country road outside of town, rolling through miles of boundless cropland, is now a busy thoroughfare linking suburban subdivisions to the city proper. Of course, he lamented this change.
Naturally, this isn’t a new story. Many people have seen drastic changes to their hometowns over the years. But David went on to ponder this a little more, concluding that he can’t set any of his writing in Peoria, that it’s all set in Chicago and other locales of his adulthood. Peoria isn’t the same as when he was a kid, he says, and neither is he.
I had never really thought about my hometown as a locale for my writing, and now I know why. It’s a little place called Seneca Falls, nestled in the heart of the Finger Lakes District of central New York State. Back then, its population was 7000, and it bustled with manufacturing activity. Several large factories were there, employing most of the locals and pumping money into the economy. Unlike David’s experience, the town looks almost exactly the same as when I grew up there so very long ago.
Except that today, most of the factories have closed or moved away. The population is still 7000, but they’re on the ropes. Very little money is circulating and the people wear the hard times on their faces. Like so many fading mill towns, Seneca Falls lives in the shadows, on a slippery slope to oblivion.
When I was growing up there, I had no awareness of anything, especially anything regarding the rhythms of life that we all eventually learn. But through reading, television, and looking at maps, I slowly became cognizant of a wider world, a world that called to me all through my adolescence. I figured out that I had to answer the call, so by the time I went away to college at age 17, my mind was made up. I never returned there to live.
Many of the places I lived since then (and there have been somewhere around a dozen) have provided me with great settings for my novels. But I absolutely cannot write anything about Seneca Falls. Because like David, I’m not the person I was during those formative years. Back then, I saw things through the clear prism of childhood, of innocence, before I knew anything about mean streets or good whiskey or dangerous women.
But once I eased into adulthood, and I felt the toxic kiss of corruption, I learned a lot of what I needed to know in order to write crime fiction. I learned it in cities like New Orleans and Las Vegas and even Key West. My novels are set in those cities, and others, because my life in those places, and the choices I made while traveling this long road, transformed me into the man who is writing this today.
As David Heinzmann so aptly put it, I’m writing about places, not where I came from, but where I came to.Â And most of them exist in a sort of moral twilight.
How about you? Did you leave your hometown? Do you write about it now? Or do you write about the places you came to?