When is local too local?

San Francisco. As in, I left my heart…

San Francisco, CA, USA

I’m a transplant, as are a good chunk of the people I meet here in SF. I grew up on the East Coast, but San Francisco has been home for 20+ years now. And obviously, I must love it, since I’ve stayed and put down roots.

It always amuses me when I read books or see movies or TV shows set in my fair city. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I really don’t. Which brings me to the question:

When is local too local?

Is there such a thing as having too much local content in fiction? When does it enhance, and when does it distract?

SF cableI’ve read plenty of books by now that are set in San Francisco. Because, let’s face it, San Francisco is one of those places that get instant recognition. Golden Gate Bridge, Victorian houses, Alcatraz… they’re all so picturesque, while also being worldwide tourist magnets. So sometimes, key scenes in books will take place with the bridge or the skyline in the backdrop, and that’s about it. But sometimes, the city itself is a part of the story, and that can be a wonderful thing.

Some of my favorites take place in San Francisco. Take for example the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, which is pure and simple an ode to the history and soul and flavor of the city. On a different note, there are the works of Christopher Moore, who sets remarkably weird and wacky supernatural tales in the City by the Bay — and it totally works. I mean, vampire parrots of Telegraph Hill? The Marina Safeway as a key plot location? A heroic Golden Gate Bridge painter? Moore’s books are hilarious, and the way he uses the city’s oddities and quirks (and notable personae, especially the Emperor) are just delightful.

I’ve also read a few great books where the city is just a subtle presence, but one that adds flavor without hitting the big tourist attractions. A recent example is the delightful YA novel Up To This Pointe, which delights in the quieter parts of SF that only residents really know and love — West Portal, the Outer Sunset, and Ocean Beach (my side of town!). The places here aren’t the point of the story, but they do add a sense of home and connection that give the main character roots and a point of origin.

SF grpahic 2Still, sometimes, the local flavor can feel like it’s inserted in order to check items off a list. Maybe it’s when the details are overdone — in one book, every time the characters take public transportation, the specific bus route is named — and I’d find myself veering out of the story and into an internal dialogue about how the N doesn’t actually stop there or no, that’s not the best way to get from the avenues to downtown. In a recent urban fantasy book (which I didn’t enjoy as a whole, and which shall remain nameless), whenever the main character would rush off to save the day, I felt like the story was being narrated by GPS: She took a left on Van Ness, then turned right on Sutter and continued onward for a mile and a half. Not only was it not engaging writing, but again, it completely took me out of the story and into recontructing street maps in my head.

My most recent foray into San Francisco fiction is the new novel All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer (reviewed here). In this book, catastrophic earthquakes that ravish the city serve as a backdrop for a study of characters and their loves and losses. The relationships are interesting enough, but once the quakes hit, all I wanted was to know more. The book does a great job of describing the reasons why huge quakes in SF would be devastating — the crowded design, the unstable ground, the drought, the understaffing of local emergency response, and the reliance on bridges for 2/3 of the entry points to the city. I was interested in the characters, but I couldn’t maintain my focus on them once the local landmarks started coming down and the fires started destroying Chinatown and North Beach. At that point, the SF resident in me just wanted to know more — what was still standing? Did they get the fires out? What happened to the bridges? … and my interest in the main storyline, the characters and their fates, dwindled in the face of the destruction of the place I call home. (I had a quibble with the end of the book as well, which jumps forward a few months and shows the city bouncing back — which is nice, but doesn’t tell me how they got there, and left me feeling that it was a little too rosy to be realistic.)

Don’t even get me started on San Francisco in film. Have you noticed how much movie folks love to destroy San Francisco? Quick, need a scene to show horrific destruction due to aliens/melting of the earth’s core/rampaging apes? Cut to the Golden Gate Bridge! Seriously, it’s kind of ridiculous how often movies use the bridge as shorthand for letting us know that life as we know it is now at serious risk. Can’t they destroy something else once in a while?


For me, the local setting in fiction is a mixed bag. When well done, it can absolutely enhance my enjoyment of a good story. I love when the essence, sights and sounds and smells, of a particular neighborhood are used to give texture or groundedness to a story. Rooting the characters in a real place and time can make them seem more alive, and can make the story feel like it could be happening just around the corner. But when the place overrides the story elements, or when the background events seem more attention-worthy than the actual plot, that’s when I start to have trouble with it all.

How about you? How do you feel about reading fiction that’s set in your real-world location, or a place that you know and love? Does it add to your enjoyment, or does it distract you from the plot and characters?

Please share your thoughts!

A note on images: I’d love to give credit where credit is due! All images were found on Pinterest, but original sources were unclear.

4 thoughts on “When is local too local?

  1. I think most of the books I have read are actually set in NYC and not the West Coast, so this is interesting. I always find it weird when authors write about recognizable locations, though. I agree it’s hard to get a good line between “checking off notable landmarks” and “not writing about things that are so un-notable that only locals would relate.” Like, when people get into specific streets names and such in NYC, I blank out–even despite the fact I have been there and know a reasonable amount about it. It feels like they’re just nudge, nudge, winking at NYC readers and not me.

    • It’s a really hard balance to maintain, because the “checking off notable landmarks” can be so cheesy. I think I lean toward local flavor without an overload of detail. Like you mentioned, the specific street names are the type of thing that baffle me in books — like, should I know that place? And how do you get there? And does this scene even make sense at that location?

  2. Well, there aren’t many stories set in Verona (Italy) 😉
    But there are a few set in Dublin, where I lived for a long stretch. I’ve actually just read a book set in Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising… and it was very weird. The author’s bio states he was born in Dublin, but the way he handled the city made me wondered where else did he grow up.

    I tend to agree with you, reading stories set in places we know very well is a mix bag, and I suppose the main point is how well the author knows the city. I think if the author knows the city very well, just like us, there will be a connection whether the city is a main character or just the backdrop for the story. We will recognise someone who sees the city not just like us, but in the same way, if you get what I mean. As someone who spent time there and uses the same senses as we use to live the city.
    I don’t know how best to say this.

    If there isn’t that kind of connection, I think it’s going to be a very frustrating experience.

    • I think you summed it up really well. There has to be enough for the author to show that he/she knows the place and understands it, rather than just getting names of places out of a tour book. I can think of something set in Verona! 🙂

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