Beyond Lake Wobegon: Setting Stories in Minnesota

Settings in fiction are very important, because without a setting, characters in a story would just drift around in space, wondering where the bathroom is. But there can be no bathroom—or anything else—without a physical dimension in time, and it is the writer’s responsibility to provide this dimension, because forcing characters to hold it for eternity is just cruel.

Describing a setting that exists in real life can be tricky, though, because readers are always on the lookout for mistakes.

Suppose your story takes places in the year 1993, and you describe a character ordering a Butterfinger Blizzard from the Dairy Queen on West Seventh St. in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you haven’t researched that particular DQ carefully, some annoyingly alert reader is going to pipe up and point out that the DQ on West Seventh didn’t start selling Butterfinger Blizzards until 2001, so there.

Then they’ll wonder: If you couldn’t get that simple fact right, how can they trust the accuracy of other details in the story? Furthermore, doesn’t the blunder of the bogus Blizzard cast a shadow of suspicion on everything you have ever written? Do you think us readers are stupid?, they’ll say. Do you think we’ll just sit here quietly while you go around making shit up? From now on, is it going to be necessary for us to fact-check every detail in your stories? We don’t have that kind of time, they’ll whine. And besides, isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to do at least a scintilla of research before tossing in details, like the Butterfinger Blizzard, that can be easily checked by calling Dairy Queen headquarters and requesting a menu from 1993, or by locating someone—someone like St. Paul resident Josephine Parker—who worked at the Dairy Queen on West Seventh for fifteen years, from 1995 to 2010, and knows exactly which Blizzard concoctions were rolled out and when? Isn’t that your job, writer-man?

Writers in the Twin Cities get these kinds of complaints all the time, because—as several polls have shown—Minneapolis and St. Paul are the most literal cities in the country. It has something to do with all the colleges and universities here, combined with a climate so unforgiving that it cannot be accurately described with figurative language. In Minnesota, when people say they are freezing their ass off, there is a high probability that their ass cheeks are literally frozen and, if they don’t get inside soon, will turn black and fall off in hand-sized slabs of frost-rotted ass-flesh.

Likewise, when comedians come to town, it is often so cold that they can’t even think of a joke. There’s no room for hyperbole or exaggeration, because everything in Minnesota is so amazingly great/awful/weird/sad/beautiful/smart/terrifying/virtuous that simply reporting the fact of its incredibly awesome extremes is difficult enough. In Minnesota, entire newspapers are devoted to reporting the many ways in which Minnesota out-does every other state in the union, and every local magazine at the grocery store is a “best of” issue. There’s no gray area, no in-between—it’s either the best goddamn hamburger you’ve ever tasted or the worst blizzard or tornado or flood in history. Literally.

Because Minnesota readers are so highly literal and fact-bound, many Minnesota writers prefer to invent fictional settings rather than set their stories in real places. The most famous of these imaginary hamlets is, of course, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.” (That’s how you can tell Lake Wobegon is in Minnesota—because it’s so fantastically perfect that it can’t get any better.)

As place names go, “Wobegon” is a great one because it is pronounced “Woe-bee-gone”—as in, get out of here, you goddamn bees—and because it sounds vaguely Indian, even though the residents of Lake Wobegon are German, Swedish, and Norwegian. But it’s not necessary to give your fictional town a ha-ha-that’s-clever name. Sinclair Lewis, another Minnesota writer that time has forgotten, invented all kinds of silly-sounding towns—Gopher Prairie, Banjo Crossing, Tuttleville, Zenith—and placed them all in a whole new state, Winnemac, which sounds more like a lottery scratch-off game than a state worthy of fictional America. And he won a Nobel Prize!

The thing Minnesota writers must always be wary of is inventing a name that sounds too real, because many towns in Minnesota sound like someone made them up. Coon Rapids, Embarrass, Sleepy Eye, Motley, Pillager, Nimrod, Climax—all of these town names are disturbingly real, so inventing one that sounds more real (but isn’t) can be a challenge. That’s why, when the founders of Minneapolis/St.Paul were looking for a clever name to describe the unique character and quality of these charming, river-straddling metropolises, they said, “Fuck it, let’s go with Twin Cities.”

Sure, some people objected: “They’re not twins. They couldn’t be more different. And they’re barely even cities. Don’t you think it’s over-stating things a bit?”

But the name stuck, because all the best bad names were already taken.

The lesson here is that the name of your fictional setting is not as important as the quality of your descriptive prose and the overall feel people get when they read about the place you have invented. There are many ways to achieve this important aura of verisimilitude, but in general every good fictional town must have a café where people can meet, a church where people can argue, and a discreet place where teenagers can procreate. It also helps to have a small local radio station that’s unregulated by the FCC, and at least one creepy person who stays in their house all day so that people can invent rumors about them.

The next challenge is filling your fictional town with all kinds of eccentric but harmless people who are quirky enough to be interesting, but not so quirky that the police need to get involved. Loveable grumps and slightly naughty nuns are good characters to include, as are artists who work in unconventional mediums (ice, auto parts, mud slurries, roadkill, etc.), gorgeous young teachers in search of true love, and judges who wear surprising things under their robes. The key is to populate your fictional town with people whom readers wouldn’t mind having as neighbors in real life. Remember, fiction offers an escape from the daily drudgery of people’s lives, and everyone hates their neighbors, so providing them with a steady supply of people who aren’t as deranged and annoying as the people next door is comforting.

The driving force of any good story is conflict, though, so every good fictional setting needs heroes and villains. As an example, here’s a brief description of a fictional city I am currently developing for a comic-book series that I hope to spin off into a movie deal. I haven’t mapped out all the details yet, because it’s a whole city, not just a town, but these are the basics:

The setting: Gollum City. It’s a dark, lonely metropolis where the sidewalks are empty and every time you step outside it has just rained. Wet, glistening streets reflect the tail lights of passing cars through fingers of steam rising through holes in the street—holes that visitors mistake for manhole covers, but really are gaping craters in the pavement. Criminals run the city, and the government is corrupt (villains all)—but there is one man (our hero) who is dedicated to fighting these villains. Our hero does his work at night, and wears a costume to hide his true identity, so the citizens of Gollum have named him after another nocturnal creature of the night: the wily skunk. Skunk-Man cruises the city in a tricked-out diesel Oldsmobile that spews clouds of greenhouse gases, and he neutralizes evil-doers by spraying them with noxious fumes that paralyze the perp’s nervous system just long enough for the authorities to arrive. Also, there’s something in the water supply that makes the criminals of Gollum look weird. Often, they take the form of an animal—a duck, lizard, or beagle. The regular citizens of Gollum aren’t affected, so it’s fairly easy to tell who the criminals are—though they, too, sometimes disguise themselves as household pets. Specifically, gerbils and goldfish.  

Again, I haven’t worked out all the details, but as you can see, Gollum City is a visually compelling place with quirky, interesting characters—and, because the city is policed by the story’s hero, the actual police are little more than an afterthought. And yes, Gollum City is in Minnesota, but it doesn’t sound anything like Lake Wobegon because that’s already been done and, frankly, everyone is sick of it. Also, I pride myself on originality. It would be unethical (not to mention illegal) of me to borrow ideas from other writers. Besides, as everyone who lives here knows, life in Lake Wobegon is nothing like real life in Minnesota. Through Gollum City, I am trying to invent a fictional cityscape that more accurately reflects Minnesota as it is today—but in a fake, made-up way that only sounds real.

I just hope readers can tell the difference. This is the Twin Cities, after all—the most literal place in the country, figuratively speaking.