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Scott Lax Blog

Fictionalizing a Small Town: An Act of Liberation

My first novel, The Year That Trembled, which was recently released by Gray & Co. Publishers in its second edition, and my new novel, Vengeance Follows, which is also being published by Gray in early December, are both set all or partly in a fictional small town in Ohio called Chestnut Falls.

I suspect I’ll be getting a similar question about Vengeance Follows as I’ve gotten about The Year That Trembled, which is some variation on this: You’re from Chagrin Falls. Chestnut Falls bears a lot of resemblance to Chagrin Falls. Why in the world don’t just call Chestnut Falls Chagrin Falls?

There are a few reasons, really, but here’s the main one: my novels aren’t set in Chagrin Falls…they’re set in Chestnut Falls.

There's a tradition of novelists fictionalizing small towns, with the most prominent examples being Mark Twain, who fictionalized his hometown of Hannibal, MO, calling it “St. Petersburg.” Next in line might be F. Scott Fitzgerald, who fictionalized Great Neck and Manhasset Neck, Long Island, and turned them into East Egg and West Egg on Long Island.

In the case of my novels the closer parallel might be to Fitzgerald’s, only because he uses fictional small towns set against the real city of New York City, specifically, the borough of Manhattan. I created Chestnut Falls and set it close to the real city of Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland, like New York, is a big place – not as big as NYC, of course, but Greater Cleveland has more than two million people. That’s a good place for a novelist to get lost in. Chagrin Falls, on the other hand, has just over four thousand people.

Like any novelist, I need to have complete freedom in creating characters. And I think it would be too distracting for readers to try to figure out who’s who in a real small town, especially if “who” is made up. The wonder of the novels is that the moment you read “a novel” on the cover of a book that means it’s made up. That's a profound thing: it allows the author freedom.

I also need that freedom to change the landscape, the direction of the streets, the names of things, whatever the case may be. I changed street names, locations of landmarks, and lots of other elements of Chagrin Falls, and in so doing, it became not Chagrin Falls, the real place, but Chestnut Falls, the novel’s place.

On the other hand, I kept a few interesting elements of Chagrin Falls. But I also added and changed things. In Vengeance Follows, for example, there’s an old telephone booth at one of the corners of the village park called Triangle Park. In the real Chagrin Falls, there’s no telephone booth in a park called Triangle Park. But I wanted one in my novel, so I put one in.

Another example. In Vengeance Follows, my protagonist, Sam Koppang, rents a small office on Main Street in Chestnut Falls, over a hardware store, in a former Masonic Lodge, overlooking the Town Hall. From there he can see the goings on that are important to the plot.

In real life, I rented a small office on Main Street in Chagrin Falls, over a hardware store, in a former Masonic Lodge, overlooking the Town Hall.

But I’m not Sam Koppang. He’s a person (or character) I wrote in the novel. So the real answer, if there is one, is that a novel is a parallel universe. If you’re an aspiring novelist, please know this: It’s your story. It’s your town. They are your characters. Do what you want with your place, with the time, with your characters.

In an increasingly intrusive world, writing a novel is an act of liberation.  Read More 
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"Sleeping In," My New Story in MUSE Magazine

MUSE magazine, which is published by The Lit: Cleveland's Literary Center, has just published "Sleeping In," one of my new short stories. It's a story about Thor Ungvald, an insomniac New York City trader that got fired from Lehman seven months before 9-11, and in a drunken stupor, slept in through the Twin Tower tragedies, which were occurring not far from his Chelsea loft. He ends up a high-society thief; "Sleeping In" is the story of what happens to him.

It's sort of difficult to write about my own short story. It's a New York story, but it's also about different kinds of theft that have occurred in the city and the country. Wall Street doesn't fare well in my story. Like a good deal of the short fiction I've been writing -- there have been three published so far this year -- "Sleeping In" is pretty dark, but, I hope, not without humor.

But then, I hope you read it -- you be the judge. To get it, you'd need to subscribe to MUSE magazine, or join The Lit (hit The Lit link on my home page) and let them know you'd like to get this June issue of the magazine. You can also purchase it in the Cleveland area at Joseph Beth Booksellers, Mac's Back's, Fireside Bookshop, or Visible Voice Books in Tremont in Ohio City in Cleveland. (Tremont's the setting of another of my stories, "The Crack," which is available in print and online. Click the log for "The Independent" to read that one.)

I'm not very good at hyping my fiction. I'd rather you read it and see for yourself.  Read More