Sunday, September 16, 2007

Your Local History

In his novel, Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner included a map of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, a fictional place where fourteen novels and most of his short stories were set. The county is 2400 square miles and bordered by the Tallahatchie River to the north and the Yoknapatawpha River to the south. Before settlers began arriving in the 1800s, Chickasaw Indians inhabited the area. Through his fiction Faulkner readers become intimate with the histories and conflicts of the characters. Yoknapatawpha County developed its own history with landmarks including Sutpen’s Hundred and Frenchman’s Bend. Faulkner drew from his own experiences and history of Lafayette County where he lived.

Other authors have familiar places in their works. Gibbsville, Pennsylvania was the fictional setting for much of John O’Hara’s works. It was based on his hometown, Pottsville. Garrison Keillor actually grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, the inspiration for his Lake Wobegon. Stephen King modeled two of his fictional towns, Derry and Castle Rock, on real towns in Maine. They are Bangor and Durham, respectively. My own novel, Living in the City, is set in fictional towns based on towns where I’ve lived. Kiehlton County is was inspired by Annville, Hershey, and Lebanon—towns in Central Pennsylvania. Kiehlton County has become the setting of most of my short stories and my current novel-in-progress. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapaptawpha County, my fictional town is developing its own history and residents who appear in more than one story.

None of these locales are particularly exotic. Each has some universality, and they’re populated with people you might find in your own neighborhood. You don’t have to wander too far from your own backyard to find interesting stories. Every town has a history; some of it comprised of rumors and legends as well.

Draw a map of your town. This can be your own hometown, a fictional town, or a combination of both. Name the streets, streams, buildings and landmarks. Add whatever details you like. Write a history of the town. Who settled there? Who were the prominent families? Are the streets named after significant figures? How long has the hardware store been there? What was in the building before Starbucks arrived? To gather ideas, visit the library or local historical society. Ask older residents what they remember. Freewrite about whatever comes to mind. You can mix and match details from your research. What you don’t know, you can make up. The town is yours.

The fourth module of the free Creating Memorable Characters workshop is posted. You can find it on the main page of the CS Writing Workshop.

One of my friends at is hosting a writing contest. There is no entry fee. Check out the contest at:


Anonymous said...

Interesting concept about local history. More people should look into this. Sometimes great stories are right in your own backyard and for sure truth is stranger than fiction.

Steve Davis, Calgary, Alberta

Rita Marie Keller said...

Thank you for your post. Please spread the word/recommend this post.