I’ve been watching Top Chef for years, and for years I’ve been grumbling that they need to host a competition in Seattle. So I was super psyched when Bravo announced that the show’s 10th season will be set in the Emerald City!
But I started reading up on the local press coverage of filming. And was, let’s say, troubled by what I read. From Seattle Weekly’s Hanna Raskin:
[T]he show’s producers are notoriously uninterested in the true culinary character of the cities they feature, and even less interested in engaging the people who live in those places. Top Chef treats its shooting locales like motel rooms serviceable for a one-night stand.
Although Texas ponied up $400,000 for the privilege of serving as a Top Chef host, the state which viewers saw was a goofy caricature that was unlikely to lure anyone to the Lone Star State. The impression created by Top Chef was that Texans ride horses and eat beef in unbearable heat. … “No one in Houston really cared about the show,” Kathaine Shilcutt, my counterpart at the Houston Press, e-mails. “In fact, most people I know actively boycotted watching it because they were so furious at being overlooked.”
I remember thinking much the same about the episodes filmed in Texas. Though the show went to great lengths to film in several different cities (hitting Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas), the take-away from any on-the-spot filming was that Texans were rednecks with big hats who wouldn’t hesitate to scream, “Texas chili doesn’t have beans!”
Dr H reminded me, too, of when Top Chef returned to New York for a previous season. For all the local dining or exploring the cast did, it might have been filmed in New Jersey.
Why would Top Chef bother traveling to film on location if it never intended to engage the local community, or branch out beyond stale stereotypes of whatever corner of the country bucks up the dough to host?
This reminded me of setting, and how important it is to get right. To use the city or region in which your story is set as more than a shabby, two-dimensional backdrop built with lazy preconceptions and a condescending lack of attention to detail. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book set in your hometown, and either delighted or cringed over how it was portrayed? If you set your novel in a real place, many readers will have that experience.
You really don’t want to get that wrong.
The good news? You don’t have to splurge on plane tickets to get the feel of a place.The answer is the same every time: research, research, research.
Have a Twitter account? I guarantee there are some people on there who live in your setting, and would love to chat about it! 1
If you want to get the exact point of view that your character has, walking their streets, try to find images in the Google Street View Gallery.
No matter how large or small the community, you can be there is some kind of newspaper, or community newsletter, or blog that focuses on the issues important to those citizens (Google is your friend!). Take a day or two to peruse and get an up-to-date refresher on what concerns that community.
The long and short of it is, if your characters exist in a world made of trite stereotypes and cliched tourist traps, they’re more likely to fall into similar tropes themselves. Don’t sell yourself, or your characters, short!
What about you?? Have you ever had a major gripe with how your hometown was portrayed? Where have you set your WiP? What kind of resources have you discovered to get a better sense of setting?
- I once asked a question about Texan homecoming traditions on a Sunday night… and got something like 5o responses! ↩