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.


Why Readers Would Rather Cry Than Laugh

All writers want to be taken seriously, but not all writers have the gravitas for literary greatness. If you want people to take your work seriously, however, there is one universal rule that cannot be broken, and that is: Under no circumstances should you ever try to make people laugh.

Comedy and literature simply don’t mix. Think about it: How many comedians are respected novelists? And how many novelists are doing stand-up?

None, that’s how many. In fact, only one person in history has ever successfully crossed the threshold of gloom, and that person was Mark Twain.

Twain’s secret was that he called himself a “humorist,” not a “comedian.” The difference between a humorist and a comedian is that the humorist makes you laugh inside your head, whereas a comedian makes you laugh out loud. Serious writers can get away with a little humor now and then, but the moment they actually make people laugh—the second someone has a convulsive physical response to their writing, not just a tingle in the brain that says ha ha, that’s clever—their reputation as a serious writer is over.

Mark Twain is beloved as a humorist because, ironically, his writing wasn’t all that funny. Go back and read Huckleberry Finn, and you’ll see what I mean. Ol’ Huck has a charmin’ way o’ talkin’, sure, and he’s kinda wise even tho’ he don’t got much in the way o’ eddication—but every time he says something kinda funny and you think you’re about to laugh, ol’ Twain pulls back and makes you think about something serious, like race relations between black and white people, or the moral difference between “borrowing” and “stealing.”

The reason Mark Twain stopped short of actually making people laugh is that he knew the dangers involved. All it takes is one or two guffaws to get a book pulled off high-school reading lists. And if, as a writer, you go all the way and make someone spit their coffee all over the carpet—well, let’s just say Terry Gross is never going to invite you into the NPR studios for a chat.

The reason for this antipathy toward laughter is that people who read books are, for the most part, a bunch of neurotic, self-loathing crybabies. They like to think of themselves as “intellectuals,” and in the world of intellectuals, the sadder and more depressing a subject is, the better. In fact, most intellectuals spend the bulk of their time consuming information that makes them sad (from The New York Times, Slate, CNN, The Atlantic, All Things Considered), then countering all that sadness with anti-depressants and weekly therapy sessions, all so they can go back out into the world and consume more sadness.

Around and around it goes. That’s why intellectuals love books with sad names, like Bleak House, The Crying of Lot 49, or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—books that make you wonder if life on the speck of star dust we call Earth has any meaning in the vast cosmic scheme of things. That’s as far as it goes, though. The moment you, as a writer, take the “s” out of cosmic and suggest that life might actually be a joke—or worse yet, the moment you tell a joke about life—your literary cred is toast.

The trouble is, intellectuals equate “seriousness” with honesty, sincerity, and anything having to do with World War II. And because they live in their heads and take so many pills, they lend a great deal of importance to anything that makes them feel an emotion through all that medication. If you can make them cry, they’ll give you a Nobel Prize. Intellectuals also love to crunch their eyebrows and shake their heads with disapproval when they read. But that’s all the motion they can handle, because if they move their heads any more than that (by laughing, say), they’ll lose their place.

The point of all this is that if your goal is literary greatness, shelve the funny stuff and dig right into the morbid and blue. Use a little humor if you must, but only to lighten the mood before descending again into the darkness, where the smart cave people live, waiting once more for a chance to weep.

The Relationship Between Art and Mental Illness

Today’s topic is a serious one: the relationship between art and mental illness. If you look at history (and I have looked at it more than once), you’ll find that a huge majority of the world’s masterpieces in art, literature, theater, and music were created by people who had some sort of mental illness. An essential part of the creative process, it seems, is losing your marbles, then wasting a few years wondering what marbles are and why it matters whether you can find them again or not.

The question no one asks is, if so many of the world’s great works of art, literature, and music are the by-product of mental illness, why does anyone pay attention to them? Society doesn’t value anything else mentally ill people do, so why should we care about the scrawls and scribbles and squeaks of a bunch of mental misfits?

Once the question is asked, the answer is obvious: We absolutely should NOT care.

After all, isn’t it alarming to think that so much great art has been (and continues to be) created by people who are, to use the clinical term, bat-shit crazy? Furthermore, what does it say about a society when the ravings of a lunatic are preferred over the sensible fact-finding of the local newspaper? How did it come to pass that the straightforward prose of a plumber’s manual is viewed as inferior to the addled ramblings of a schizophrenic poet? And why does a self-mutilating depressive like Vincent Van Gogh get so much attention when my Aunt Charlotte—as cheerful and amiable a doodler of flowers as there ever was—can’t even get gallery owners to return her phone calls?

Once the veil is lifted, it’s impossible not to see how society is being corrupted and poisoned by the mentally ill. Museums and bookstores everywhere are filled with the by-products of their diseased brainpans. This means that millions of people each year are exposed to mental illness, and, because mental illness can be contagious, many of these people become mentally ill themselves.

The signs of mental-illness exposure are everywhere, if you know what to look for: People who have a sudden appreciation for the “beauty” of the natural world; children who start asking questions about “racial equality” and “fairness”; people who are insufferably tolerant of other people’s religious practices and beliefs; a spontaneous interest in alternative “perspectives”; a bizarre level of empathy for people one doesn’t personally know; adults who don’t follow professional sports; sudden cravings for non-American food; a desire to attend gallery openings and art fairs; believing that public sculptures foster “community,” “respect,” and “understanding”; people who sing on the bus; the wearing of wacky outfits for no practical reason; laughing at irony; decorating one's desk space to make it look more "creative"; quitting a job to go do something more "meaningful"; getting a tattoo. The list goes on. 

The point is, this whole disgusting mess is the result of people being unwittingly exposed to mental illness through the irresponsible distribution of art, literature, and music in our society, particularly in our museums and schools. Clearly, something must be done.

That’s why I am drafting a Congressional proposal to have all the artwork in the nation’s museums removed and re-evaluated for indications of mental illness. I am also proposing that all the books in our public libraries be re-catalogued according to the mental stability of their authors, and all the music polluting our nation’s airwaves and Internet streams silenced until the mental fitness of all the musicians involved can be evaluated, and every one of them tested for consumption of illegal drugs, subversive literature, or any other form of mental contraband.

It may take some time, but cleansing the nation of this plague is essential if we want to live in a saner, more reasonable world. Please, join me in the fight to restore mental health as the cornerstone of American democracy.

Vote Trump in 2016!