Books Set in NYC: Tried and True, or Tired and Trite?

Have you ever noticed the sheer number of books that are set in New York City? The Princess Diaries series, the Insatiable series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rules of Civility, P. S. I Love You, Sex and the City, The Nanny Diaries, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Out of Time (a Caroline Cooney Time Travelers Quartet book), The History of Love, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Eloise, The Cricket in Times Square, Harriet the Spy, just to name a few, and, let us not forget, according to Marvel comics, NYC is the most superhero-dense city on earth (Spiderman anyone?)

Now, I understand that New York has a lot of people and therefore a lot of stories worth telling in its long history. It has geographical elements that stories are attracted to like magnets: Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building, the Met, the subway, Broadway, Times Square, and the offices of nearly every major publishing house and magazine in American history.

Many of these books have a sense of place so infused in them that they couldn’t properly be set anywhere else. Where else could Spiderman travel with such ease than through the network of tall buildings that is Manhattan? What would the lovely Holly Golightly be without Tiffany’s? And the children from the Mixed-Up Files without the Met? As in many good books, the setting is so important in these plot lines that the city becomes a character in its own right.

There’s nothing wrong about writing a book set in New York, but the overwhelming number of them makes me want to ask: What’s wrong with writing local?

Nothing’s wrong with it, some of you might answer. Maybe you’ve never been tempted to write a story set in New York. In fact, a lot of you probably write stories set in entirely different places. But, if you’re from a small town, a boring state, or a less-than-mainstream and popular country, do you set them there, in those places with which you are most familiar? Or do you try to set them someplace you consider more interesting, more exciting, wholly more appropriate for a good story? Maybe not New York, but perhaps some other metropolitan area: Washington, DC, Savannah, Boston, Paris, London, or Los Angeles. Do you set your stories there because the characters belong there, or because you feel pressured to set it somewhere more populous and well-known?

When I was working on my book, I struggled to find the sense of place. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and in the first draft it was just easier to allow the book–even though I was morally opposed to having it set there–occur in the same place. But when I went back to edit it, I wanted to pack up all the characters and move them. Who wants to read something set in my lame region? I figured. So I struggled. I kept moving them around, jumping them from place to place, but none of them felt right. I tried New York, I tried the New Jersey coast; I considered islands and I considered a more rural location. Nothing worked.

Reluctantly, I let them move back to the Philadelphia suburbs. And it works so much better. The whole read local movement–local authors and regionally-set stories–made me realize that there is a huge amount of readers who are proud of their hometowns and would love to read about them in print. After living in New York this summer, I wasn’t interested in reading more books set in the city. Books set in small towns, far-flung regions, and places I’d never been before were refreshing reading. For a brief moment, New York lost its glamor and the self-conceived idea that all good books are set there–admittedly, there are a lot of them–evaporated. I learned to stop being ashamed of where my book really wants to be set, and embraced writing local.

(Image, No Copyright, Library of Congress)

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3 thoughts on “Books Set in NYC: Tried and True, or Tired and Trite?

  1. Giulietta Nardone says:

    Hi Hannah,

    A really neat topic and one that fits nicely with the entire local movement – food, necessities, art centers, etc.

    In the 70’s, our main streets got sucked dry by the malls and we lost interest in our own sense of place. And with all the generic stores, etc, it became hard to distinguish one’s own area from another. Once I was going to a friend’s in anther state and realized that I’d landed in front of a mall that had the same stores. I thought I’d driven in a complete circle!

    I’m glad you set your story in your own backyard so to speak. It’s a great way for other parts of the country to be seen and heard.

    fun! G.

    • hannahkarena says:

      Hi Giulietta,

      Glad you liked the post. My aunt and uncle live in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and they have a similar story to yours. The town is being sucked dry and losing business because of the new National Park visitors center. Before it was built, visitors would wander around the town and go to local gift shops, local tour companies, and local restaurants. Now, the visitors center is an all-in-one stop shop.

      Your experience sounds like my nightmare: I’d hate for everything to be so uniform that I wouldn’t even recognize where I was!

      Thanks for stopping by :]

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