Writing Stories Set in the Northwest

While writing a post about the handful of items which will get me to put a book down and never pick it up again, usually in combination with each other, I stumbled across an area that really bothers me: setting gone wrong.

I understand we can't always know a place perfectly. Businesses change. Roads sometimes even change. A culture may shift. However, we have Google maps, guidebooks (from the library), and other ways we can check our settings.

With my own feelings about settings, I struggle to write real world settings for fear of getting them wrong. 

There are ways to handle setting details creatively: A writer can create a fictional town in a known place. A writer can focus on details important only to character development and chop the rest. And, a writer can research.

The following is a list of things I "know" about living in Washington State since I've lived here my entire life (from the 70s to now). I may not "know" it the same way someone who is new here does, but these are tidbits of information which might help any writers who want to set their story here.

1. Everyone owns an umbrella, but usually keeps it in their car for "emergencies" or standing outside at their kid's sporting events. Otherwise, using an umbrella to go from your car into a store is considered a sign that you moved here from California or you are going to a job interview. (Plus, wind gusts happen randomly so many of us own broken umbrellas and don't replace them often.)

2. Rain coats are also owned by everyone, but also stored in closets, and often forgotten. A little drizzle doesn't hurt anyone, right? Northwesterners rarely wear beautiful trench coats, but can be seen wearing hoodies soaked in the rain, garbage bags thrown hastily over clothing at sporting events when the rain is "worse than expected" or wearing outdoor hiking rain gear (REI, Eddie Bauer, and Northface, which can also be found at the second hand stores, because they really are that commonly worn). I've seen people experiencing  homelessness wearing REI castoffs and middle-income parents wearing garbage bags at sporting events. These are the only two options for fully keeping out rain when it rains all day or gushes. The "pretty" rain coats get soaked and don't wear well in those conditions. But note, a hint of rain is not enough for anyone to wear/bring an umbrella or rain coat anywhere. The weather must promise an 80% chance of showers for several hours, otherwise, we shrug and get wet. 

3. If a writer is writing about events in Eastern Washington or Spokane, it is good to know the area east of the mountains is both more culturally conservative and less rainy. You can get a 110 degree summer day on the east side, while "coasties" like me complain about 80 degree heat waves. The distance between the west border of Washington on the coast and the east border of Washington is about a six hour drive (wait, I didn't mention actual mileage, yes, I know, it's a Northwest thing). BTW, six hours of distance (I kid you not, we measure it this way) does not include traffic conditions. (I had to look up how far in miles it is, and it's 370 miles, so maybe 7 hours if you are not likely to speed like most of Washington drivers.)

4. There are many other states with higher precipitation levels. What bothers most people who live in Washington State, on the West side, is the gray cloud cover. This can be called "marine air," but it doesn't have to be smoggy or fire season for it to be a consistent dark gray from horizon line to horizon line for days on end. It is not abnormal to have four months in the winter where we can't see the sun because of rain clouds that just hover around, drizzling. Moss, mold, and fungi are a part of regular life. Dampness is normal. It rains in the summer, too. Sun breaks are like bits of glory, and sunny days include some white bits of clouds (they're small, no big deal, it's not going to actually rain, and look, we can see the sky). 

5. Washington State Residents and Live Events:
Seattleites are only quiet and polite until events are in play, then we are way too loud. We do try to keep it down in the theaters (live movies), but with a new movie release, cheering and groans can be heard in the hallway outside each individual theater. If you watch a movie at a friend's house, be aware the rules of "quiet in front" do not apply at home. In the midst of a home movie night, you may hear friends/family members shouting things like: "What? He wouldn't walk away from that! Where did the extra set of henchmen come from? Awkward!" or even, "Did you see the way they used the lighting in that scene?"
At sporting events, well, you've heard the Seahawks' games, haven't you? The crowd in the stadium is only a bit louder than crowds at other sporting events, even younger athletic events. We cheer, groan, and jump up and down with abandon, then walk quietly out of the stadium and to our cars, drive slowly home, and get up the next day, to go about work all polite and quiet again, win or lose. Sometimes, losing adds a bit of a grumpy pall, but we create cynical memes and go about our day - quietly, like the rain drizzling outside.

Small tidbits of random info:
  • Everyone who lives here gets tired of explaining, "no, the state, not D.C."
  • We complain about the rain, but we not-so-secretly love it here.
  • We love our mountains, our lakes, our Puget Sound, our ocean, our rivers, and our islands. 
  • Anything with water is a good activity, whether it's liquid, steam, frozen, or snow.
  • Most people from the West side can't drive in snow or ice unless they ski/snowboard regularly; however, in all fairness, we do have 8% grade hills in our downtown city areas, and throughout our suburbs. If you visit here during the winter, do not be surprised if all of the schools are closed because we have a tiny bit of black ice and a few inches of snow. 
  • However, if you are on the East side, you'll find snowmobiles, big trucks, and sporty cars driving in three feet of snow. 
  • Apples and most crops grow best on the East side, but some wineries and farms do well on the West side. 

  • While some organizations like the Ku Klux Clan have been in Washington since the 1800s, most Washingtonians pride themselves on being anti-racist and those types of groups are pretty quiet. My grandparents did have a cross burned on their lawn in the late 50s and I did have some run-ins with Clan kids in the 80s, but racism is considered unacceptable by most people here, on either side of the state. 
  • Diversity is normal in Washington State. Yes, some residential areas are more filled by one ethnic group or another, but going about our daily lives, we work and play with many cultural, ethnic, and racial groups. I student-taught at a high school in Seattle at which 70% of the students had come to the USA in their life-times. That was in the 90s. 

  • Clothing styles, as noted earlier, run to casual. We all like to think a hike/kayak/bike adventure might break out at any moment. Suits are for business, and sometimes, for worship. Casual Fridays at offices are normal, and by casual, we mean jeans/shorts/polos/t-shirts/sandals/tennis shoes. Anything dressier is dress casual. I know, after traveling a bit, that most of the US, especially the East and the South, dress up a bit more than we do in the West.

  • It's rare I that get asked about cowboys in the wild west, but just in case you are wondering...No, we don't have cowboys here, not like in the old movies. We do have cattle owners and horse owners who may look like modern cowboys, but they carry smart-phones like everyone else, and usually don't live off the grid. Between the ages of 7-14, I raised four cows on the outskirts of a small, redneck town, and I never owned a pair of cowboy boots. I did get told "just carry a stick" when I said I was afraid of the cows trampling me during my barn chores. (Yeah, thanks, mom, dad, and grandparents.) I nearly got trampled at least a half dozen times, but became a pretty fast runner. (silver lining)
  • On the other side of things, human trafficking is a huge problem here. We have port cities, massive groups of hotels, and major highways. 
  • Due to the above, it's pretty common, even if a woman is anti-gun, to carry bear spray or another type of defense, either openly (like in the cup holder of a jogging stroller on a local walking trail) or hidden.

  • Northwesterners are less likely to use "sweetie, honey, darling, miss, or missy" and using those can be considered rude/impolite/overbearing, depending on the situation. Some Northwesterners do use  terms of endearment in family/friend groups. 
  • Everything and anyone of any gender can be "dude" in casual conversation, but not usually professional conversation.
  • So, we're casual, but sticklers about not using terms of address in conversation.
  • Sarcasm is normal.
  • "Yeah, no" means "no" or "I agree with you that what you've told me is bad."
  • "No, yeah" means "yes" or I agree with you.
  • "Yeah, no, yeah," usually means "agreed."
  • Dropping the ends of sentences is normal. Run-on sentences in conversations are normal. There is no hard "punch" of sound at the end of sentence like Eastern US speakers use. Good luck figuring out when we're done speaking. If you don't jump in, we'll continue or decide the conversation is over. 

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