A Short Excursion to Pittsburgh
A few weeks ago, I went to Pittsburgh, PA. A friend and I drove from Toronto, through New York and Pennsylvania. We frequently cross the border, usually stopping off in Buffalo. It’s instructive in a lot of ways. While most people don’t imagine the differences between Canada and the US to be all that great, it’s those subtle changes—often imperceptible at first—that really make the difference.
One thing we notice almost immediately is the level of advertising. Yes, Toronto has billboards. Yes, we have invasive advertising. But in a lot of ways, advertising on the Canadian side of the border seems a lot less “gimmicky.” And our billboard space is usually devoted to large companies; in the US, while the billboards still dominate the skyline, there’s also advertising dollars behind even smaller companies, local companies. It’s really interesting. It says something about the differences in Canadian consumer culture and American commercialism and consumerism, for sure.
We also notice differences in things like measurements, American driving habits (we can pick out Ontario drivers even before we see their license plates), and things like building codes. Rural areas in the US have a different look and feel.
On this particular trip, we noticed that New York had turned one of the “rest stops” along the I-90 into a “text stop.” We thought that was hilarious—but it also speaks to how New York might be targeting millennials, realizing that maybe people of that generation are taking road trips or using the Interstate to commute. It also speaks to an awareness of people’s texting habits and how dangerous using a handheld device and reading while driving is. Pennsylvania, by contrast, didn’t use this terminology. We were also amused by warnings in the Pennsylvania Welcome Center’s washrooms: don’t flush underwear, and yes, we’re aware this one particular toilet runs longer than usual. Who actually flushes underwear?
Of course, there’s a reason that going to Pittsburgh was important. We went to see a hockey game (Penguins versus Capitals, to be specific), but one of the locations in the Slapshot! series is Pittsburgh. As much as this was a trip for pleasure, it was also a research trip. Toronto is very much a “hockey town,” but Pittsburgh is something very different, even if the denizens are proud of their hockey team and history.
One thing it’s important to capture is not just the locations of things, but also the attitudes and customs of the location. Pittsburgh, or Steel Town, has a rich industrial past, something that’s reflected in the city’s architecture. We explored a few areas, got a feel for some of the different districts. While a couple of days in the city don’t make experts by any stretch of the imagination, walking along the tracks near the base of Mount Washington and trekking through some of the rough-looking parts of the South Side help me get a better idea of the location I’m writing about. Sure, I can tell you that my characters went to a particular establishment on this particular street, but if I don’t know the context, chances are that’s going to ruin any sort of verisimilitude for readers who are from Pittsburgh or know the area well. On the flip-side, leaving out those crucial details or describing things in vague terms will also leave the reader feeling vaguely uneasy in space, because I’m not giving enough information to ground them.
Basically, what this boils down to is that it’s important to ground your readers in your settings. When you’re writing about real-world locations, even if you’re imagining or renaming the businesses or landmarks to fictionalize them, you have to do your research. I may not write about the arena or Heinz Field, but I should be able to write a bit about the arena in town and how, in certain sections, you have to drink your alcohol in a particular designated zone; you’re not allowed to bring it with you to your seat. (This seemed an oddity to us at the time, but we were in a different section of the arena; we’d been in the lower bowl in other arenas in different cities, which may have affected the rules.) Including that tidbit is going to signal to readers that yes, this is Pittsburgh indeed. Similarly, writing about bridges or tunnels and some of the graffiti or some of the garbage, the rust from bolts underlying that peculiarly bright yellow paint is going to help ground a reader in Pittsburgh, even if it is my peculiarly fictionalized version of the city.
Of course, even the most careful research isn’t going to turn up all the ins and outs of life and location in Pittsburgh. I’d have to live there for years, maybe decades, in order to understand every facet of the city—and even then, I probably wouldn’t get everything “right” or would make generalizations from my own experience that others would disagree with. Even in that case, there are likely things that I’ll want to bend, realities that I’ll work to fictionalize for the convenience of the story. The challenge is to blend both reality and fiction into a seamless whole, so that the reader will accept my fictionalizations as at least plausible, even if they know them not to be true. It’s an art.
We spent a total of 2.5 days in Pittsburgh—a quick weekend trip, really. We’d previously been for the Winter Classic back in 2011, and my friend had made a return trip in between. I still have lots to explore in the city, that’s for sure. This trip was definitely more hockey-focused, since we were at the arena. (Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch an open practice at the new practice facility in Cranberry—maybe next time.) Attending the game, I learned quite a bit about Pittsburgh hockey and sports fans. We took a couple of pics with the statue of Mario Lemieux outside the arena and toured the Penguins fan shop in the arena. We also wandered around and grabbed sushi on the South Side. We visited Market Square. We stayed downtown this time. On our previous trip, we visited Heinz Field and stayed outside of the downtown core.
Even if I didn’t take detailed notes, I was still categorizing information for later use in writing Pittsburgh as a setting in the Slapshot! series. With some luck, that will come through when I write about Steel City.
And now, bridges! Because if I learned just one thing about Pittsburgh, it’s that the city loves their bridges.