How do you make life real in your fictional story? Sometimes that means setting your fiction in the real world. When I set out to write a dystopian novel about AIDS internment camps in the near future, I knew I needed to ground it in somewhere that was real for me.
This week, that same novel — ‘The Immortals’ — is being offered as part of a Storybundle. For the next seven days, you’ll be able to buy some pretty impressive titles in ebook form for immediate download from Storybundle.com. You can even set your own price and determine how much of a cut each of us authors will get. And a portion of every purchase goes toward supporting a charity — my favorite is the Challenger Learning Centers.
When they asked me which novel I wanted included in the bundle, my choice was easy and immediate: ‘The Immortals”. You may not have heard of this novel but it is among the favorites of those that I’ve penned.
Earlier this week, Laura and I were driving back home from a weekend with family in the southern part of our state. We always stop in a town on the interstate by the name of Beaver, Utah. It’s my second home town because my parents were both born in this rural farming community. I grew up having special Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays here in my grandparent’s home. It’s the place where my boyhood memories reside.
It also happens to be the place I chose as one of the main settings in ‘The Immortals.’ I knew if I was going to pull of that dark future story that I would need to ground it in a real place that I knew well. So when I set this story in what was then ‘the future’, I included all the landmarks of my childhood. ‘Old Baldy’ and ‘Big John Flat’ are real places I’ve visited up in the mountains east of the town. I’ve attended church at the First Ward. I’ve watched movies at the Firmage Theater (including one my father made). The Court House in the town I used as the command center for the occupying army and, thanks to a restoration project my grandmother was involved in, is open to the public as a museum. And, of course, there is the El Bambi Cafe.
Whenever I see the El Bambi Cafe, I think of this scene from Chapter 9 of the book:
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 / 1720 hrs El Bambi Cafe / Beaver City Beaver Valley, Beaver County, Utah
“Virgil! By Gawd! Git yer skinny little butt down here!”
The nasal voice cut across the El Bambi Cafe like a hunting knife–bright, clean, and sharp. You could take a whetstone to that tone and not come up with a keener edge. The voice was used for urging wayward cattle back into the herd and calling dogs from a mile or two away. There was nothing quiet about the ranch hand’s life–a good set of lungs was one of the first things you developed, next to a thick hide and a stubbornness to equal and surpass any critter, wild or domestic, that might have the misfortune of crossing your path.
Virgil snatched the broad-brimmed straw cowboy hat off his head and slapped it several times against his Levi’s, raising a small cloud of dust just outside the entrance to the cafe. Virgil’s smile flashed as bright as the sun at noon. With the exception of their rather jagged unevenness, his teeth seemed as though some dentist had just polished them against the deep brown skin of his broad face. His eyes were small and bright, nearly buried behind the habitual and perpetual squint. The black hair had a grayness to it under the tinting of dust and sun. But more than anything else, it was the size of the man that was Virgil’s most impressive quality. He wasn’t so much overweight as just rolled muscle hung from a huge frame of bones that might have done a Clydesdale horse proud. Virgil was “mountain,” meaning that he was as at ease on a rock up on Old Baldy or Big John Flat as any bed in town–not a few of which he had visited from time to time. He could out hunt, out fish, and just about out anything anyone in town. The only sign of decay on Virgil was the slight belly he sported–evidence of a few too many beers, which habit, if left unchecked, might someday blossom into something really pronounced in his profile.
Virgil Wayne Johnston was the wildest of the wild, twenty-three years old and raised mostly by his father, Emmett. His mother was a churchwoman of First Ward who had tried to do her best by her boy, but God had seen fit to take her in a car rollover on I-15. Since that rather unjustified act, neither Emmett nor his boy had quite been on speaking terms with God. Emmett himself finally made up his mind to join his wife and used a twelve-gauge shotgun to hurry the process, whether God thought it was his time or not. Virgil was seventeen at the time. Folks said that Emmett had been drunk out of his mind and that it was a terrible shame. It didn’t matter much to Virgil. Emmett had left Virgil two things: an independent will and the knowledge of the mountain which no other person alive possessed.
Of course, Bishop Peters of First Ward took the boy in as an act of charity, hoping that his own four boys might be a saving influence on the Johnston boy. It turned out to be something of-a draw. After a two-yearlong exercise in frustration and rage, the first of the Peters boys barely managed to keep himself out of trouble enough to go on a mission, and Virgil, now nineteen and his own man, celebrated by going to the Renegade Lounge–and never went back.
In Beaver, there were three kinds of people: church people, which might include those civilized folk of all denominations but which, in reality, meant Mormons. Mormons founded the town and by divine right were its owners–a fact that no amount of questioning by anyone would ever shake.
Then there were the “renegades” or the “wild ones”– usually from among the youth who sprang into this world only to discover that they had entered it in a place where there was really nothing to do–interactive television and direct satellite not withstanding. The Firmage theater–the only screen in town–only opened once a month now, and no one had ever bothered to equip it for interactive displays or virtual immersion cinema. All it played were the old flat screen movies, which were becoming increasingly difficult to find. So the youth either buried themselves in farm work and church, or they cruised up and down Main Street in a time-honored tradition staunchly maintained down the long years. The truly restless boys wore their outlaw status as something of a badge, gathering at the Renegade Lounge–the one place you could get a drink and play a little notorious pool in the town–and were generally too loud, too proud, and too charged with their own manhood to give many mothers and fathers much decent sleep when their daughters were loose.
Outsiders might make the mistake of thinking that they could get some advantage in playing the wild young people against the church folk or vice versa. It was a mistake not often repeated. Such ruckuses were always viewed as “nobody else’s business” and were always “kept to ourselves.”
The reason for this was the “outsiders” themselves. The only thing that the good church people and the renegades had in common was their mutual disdain for outsiders. The term was reserved for anyone who hadn’t been born, bred, and raised in the rocky ground that relinquished crops in the Beaver Valley only under the greatest of protests. Outsiders might on first blush find in Beaver a friendly community and its people genuinely kind, but after a while even the dullest of visitors would discover a silent and invisible barrier beyond which it was impossible to become part of the community. Whether wild or righteous, everyone in Beaver maintained the quiet and unspoken circling of the wagons that had become a way of life. It was as old as their pioneer ancestors who fled religious persecution in the east; they haven’t trusted such outsiders since.
The line is razor-sharp and hard as a rifle’s blue steel.
Virgil swung his hat back on his head, giving a quick brush with his hands in a vain apology to the brim of his hat. The brim continued to hold its shape only by the thinnest margin of effort. In quick succession, the pointed-toe boots crossed the linoleum tile in the bowlegged swagger that apologized for nothing.
“Well, Harl, you som’bitch,” Virgil rumbled in a deep bass that would never be trained to sing anything presentable in mixed company. “What are you doin’ sittin’ here with these other horse-faced mama’s boys ?”
Virgil didn’t deign to notice the other patrons in the cafe as he strolled past them, his own voice booming entirely too loud for the confined space. If he noticed the tension rising in the booths as he passed, he didn’t let on.
Harlan Murphy’s smile was trouble easily recognized by the other locals in the cafe. He was in the booth with the Lowell and Louis McNeil twins. Outsiders who crossed paths with anyone of those boys alone might think they had encountered one of the shyest and most polite people they ever met. They might even think that the “cowboy” they encountered was sensitive and “well in touch with his feminine side.” Voicing of such an opinion, however, would be a mistake, and the consequences might not be questioned in any court in the county.
By themselves they were just considered one of “those boys.” However, put more than one of them together in anyone place and there could be hell to pay. Several cups of coffee were hurried along, and a few burgers were downed a bit quicker than might otherwise have been expected. Quietly and without a fuss, the El Bambi began emptying very quickly.
There’s a lot more to the chapter — and the story, of course. I hope you’ve enjoyed this sample and that you’ll take this opportunity to read it.
The point here, however, is that using real world locations, either remodeled as they are or as the ‘model’ you use for a fictional place, can be a simple, easy means of provide a level of realism in your fiction that you just can’t get through imagination alone. Places like your home town grew the way they are from deep roots and complex reasons — and using them as a model gives your story and your characters that same sense of roots and depth.
And, there’s the bonus of actually being able to visit the places you put in your book afterward.