From the land of Oz to your own backyard

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

As a young child my imagination was forever captured and my mind warped by the classic film based on Frank Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz. In the years when I was growing up, the classic movie aired once each spring. If you missed it, you missed it until next year so it was, to me, a very big deal. Of course, I also read the book and some of the others written by Baum that were set in the land of Oz.  As a parent, The Wizard of Oz was one of the first movies I bought for my children’s video library along with classic Disney. One of my daughters loved it so much that she wore the little blue and gingham Halloween costume dress as often as I would allow and at one point, both girls had shoes that resembled the ruby slippers. Although my kids are now grown, The Wizard of Oz remains a family favorite.

 The multi-layered story is much more than it may seem on first viewing. In my various writings I’ve had characters reference the show and quotes from it as well. One of my favorite themes within The Wizard of Oz is power. Dorothy possessed the power to go home all the time but doesn’t realize it. It takes a journey through dangers and facing fears to find out. It requires others to show her what she possessed all the time. And at the end of the movie the viewer learns that exotic, lovely Oz is no more than Dorothy’s imagination or so it seems.

I’m thinking about Oz today because I’m thinking about settings. Some writers like to choose exotic settings someplace far, far from home. Others write about places in their own backyard. I do a little of although I seldom write about any place I haven’t been. Why? Because as a reader, nothing infuriates me quicker than reading about a place I know and I can tell the author doesn’t. I usually read any book to the end but I once quit on a book by a well-known author because her story set in the southwest corner of Arkansas, flat country with oil wells and known as part of the Ark-La-Tex, was described as being in the Ozark Mountains and dotted with pine trees. But, the Ozarks end about mid-state and pines aren’t common.

I think of these things when I sit to write and I do my best to make sure I get the settings right.

I seldom write anything in a fantasy genre so creating a world outside our physical reality such as Oz isn’t on my radar. Another Missouri writer Samuel Clemens, better know as Mark Twain, first offered the advice “write what you know” to budding writers and I think its still sound advice.

When I write fiction, whether it’s a short story or a novel, I choose settings that I am familiar with. Neosho and the Ozark region appears often and so does my hometown of St. Joseph, MO.  If I haven’t lived in a place, I’ve usually been there and gained a feel for it. In my current work in progress, my characters live in a town based on Hermann, Missouri, a favorite place to visit. In the book, it’s Deutschestadt (Germantown) but it’s very much like the actual Hermann. I’ve written about both New York and Los Angeles enough to receive high praise from my editor, a native of the Big Apple, and a long-time resident of LA who said he could tell I’d spent some time there.

Setting is important – whether it’s the Land of Oz or your own backyard.

-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a former editor and journalist. She is an freelance writer and author who lives in Neosho, MO.