Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Just downriver of the French Quarter, past Frenchmen Street and the Faubourg Marigny, there's a neighborhood called Bywater. It's funky without trying to be (although some of the so-called gutter-punk kids seem to be trying a little too hard), home of Krewe du Vieux and Mardi Gras Zone and the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store.
It's a neighborhood where you won't find a lot of chain restaurants (capt. sal's seafood doesn't count), or trendy businesses. Which reminds me of a story one of my friends once told me. He's been doing location scouting here for years now, and a year or so ago he met a guy who bought an old building on Saint Claude Avenue, which basically separates Bywater from the Upper Ninth Ward. The guy later found a Starbucks sign, and, as a joke, put it up outside his building with a Coming Soon notice.
He expected people would get excited about a new Starbucks (i think there are two in town, excluding hotels), but that's not what happened. Within days, the sign became defaced, scribbled on, graffitied. I think someone may have smeared some sort of excrement (human, animal, who knows?) on the sign.
The citizens of Bywater (okay, probably mostly the gutter-punk kids who are too cool to bathe or use deodorant) had spoken. Faced with the threat of a Starbucks invading the neighborhood, the neighborhood fought back. Luckily for Starbucks, they never knew a thing about this mutiny.
For me, this knowledge turned into a writing lesson (doesn't it always?) about how setting is more that just the sight of the old buildings, the smell of the river, the hot breeze whipping through the crape myrtles, it's the sound of car horns and profanity, and tags spray-painted on the crumbling brick walls. The gum on the sidewalk and the cigarette butts smoking in the gutter. It's about the people as much as it's about the place.
It can be easy to treat setting and people as two distinct entities, two different parts of storytelling, but the setting has just as much effect on people as people affect the places they inhabit, whether town, city, or alone in a big scary house (anyone else watching american horror story?).
How do people interact with setting where you live? Do you use this as inspiration in your writing?