Inside the Writer’s Head: Why a novel’s setting matters (and why Cincinnati makes a great one!)

As the Library’s 2019 Writer-in-Residence, I’ve been charged with sharing glimpses of my writing process—and, of course, my experiences through this wonderful program—in blog posts here throughout the year. One of the best ways to get to know a writer, I think, is through their work, and if you read mine you’ll likely find yourself right at home—literally!

When I first began seriously pursuing fiction writing, I spent years writing and rewriting (and rewriting …) a novel that did eventually attract a literary agent but never went on to sell to a publisher. One of the problems may have been that the story was set … well, nowhere. 

I had this idea that I wanted readers to imagine it could be happening right in their town. But the unintended result may have been the opposite: A feeling of detachment. By the time I started a new manuscript, I’d learned a lot about things I wanted to do differently. I wanted to craft a story that was more concrete, immediate, tangible—and that included the setting. 

That novel, Almost Missed You, spanned multiple timelines and a few different cities, but my own Cincinnati backyard played a big role. As the story followed my star-crossed characters through years of missed connections, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed taking places that held meaning for me and bringing them to life on the page. And when that book did (hooray!) go on to be published by major imprints in both the U.S. and the U.K., it wasn’t the scope of the readership that blew me away the most—it was the warm reception from local readers.

It turned out they delighted in the same things my characters did: Loading up on Burger Madness toppings at Arthur’s Cafe and washing them down with Graeter’s in Hyde Park Square. Settling on a blanket at sunset for a musical evening in Washington Park. Spotting signs of the old railroad along the Loveland bike trail. 

Plenty of writers, of course, portray far-flung or even purely fictional locales more successfully than I did in my own first, failed attempt. It’s a point you can often see debated on panels at book festivals and conferences, with authors in both camps. But for me, choosing a place with heart has resulted in stories with heart—and in lasting connections with readers who might not have found my work otherwise. Simple as that. 

My second novel required a smaller town, a more intimate environment that would tightly frame the plot and the story’s ripple effects. Not That I Could Tell is set in another favorite place nearby: Yellow Springs. Living elsewhere in my imagination was a nice change for a year—but when it came time to write my third novel, I knew I wanted to bring the story back to Cincinnati. 

My year as writer-in-residence has started as a busy one: Forget You Know Me released in hardcover from St. Martin’s Press on February 5, and my calendar has been full of travel to promotional events around the Midwest. But now that things are settling down a bit, I’m looking forward to face time with readers closer to home.

For this story, I chose some of my favorite spots on the city’s fringes and, rather than using them as backdrops, wove them into my subplots: 

1. One of the main characters, Molly Perkins, works at Cincinnati Nature Center, where she tries to help a troubled child find healing on the trails. I actually wrote and revised some of the book’s chapters in the on-site library there!
2. Another, Liza Green, is less drawn to nature and prefers to walk the paved trail at Lunken Airport, watching airplanes take off and land, and …
3. One day she happens into its restaurant, Sky Galley, where she meets a shuttle pilot whose worldview challenges her own in important ways. 

In rendering these scenes, I’d sometimes walk in the footsteps of my characters. The photos shown here were taken on those outings—which make for some of my favorite writing days.

People often ask if I can recommend other novels that are set in Cincinnati. Here is a trio of my favorites:

• The History of Us by Leah Stewart
• Fractured by Catherine McKenzie
• Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld 

Until next time,

Jessica Strawser
2019 Writer-in-Residence: Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County
Editor-at-Large: Writer's Digest
Novelist: Almost Missed You  Not That I Could Tell  Forget You Know Me • St. Martin's Press, opens a new window / t @jessicastrawser, opens a new window / f @jessicastrawserauthor, opens a new window