Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Using Setting as Inspiration

Michelle McGill-Vargas
There's a saying: write what you know. Or even: write what you don't know! Well I've done both. My setting is in the place I'm familiar with, but there was so much about it I didn't know.
Most of my stories take place in my hometown of Gary, Indiana. I've chosen Gary as my setting because I've always heard about the glory days before 1970 (which is sad to say because the country's first black mayors were elected in both Gary and Cleveland in 1969.) I've seen pictures of a vibrant downtown, beautifully manicured school campuses and an abundance of places and activities for an active social life. A lot of that is gone now. What outsiders see and post on social media are crumbling and abandoned buildings, a struggling school district and young folks desperate to leave. Certain people perceive this as a place to avoid when the sun goes down. I expect, and usually get, a negative reaction when I disclose where I live. So I want to tell of the city's glorious—and oftentimes infamous—past. All of it fodder for my active imagination.
Everyone knows the basics: the city was a company town founded by the United States Steel Corporation in 1906. While that may not sound all that interesting, US Steel's acquisition of the land for the mill and the city is. Milwaukee was the first choice, but the discovery of an unpopulated, marshy, swampy region right on the shores of Lake Michigan and nestled between the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers was easier to acquire. In 1893, the Chicago stockyards threatened to move operations into that very spot in northwest Indiana. Hoping to cash in, people began purchasing all that property. But it was just a negotiating tactic, and the stockyards stayed put. Now those people were stuck with land they couldn't unload...that is, until 1905 when A.F. Knotts, under the authorization of steel executive Judge Elbert Gary, made secret purchases of that property in cash.
Within a year, Gary, Indiana was born and its storied history began. Using setting as a tool to craft stories allows me to add layers that help enrich the story. And it’s not just about the physical description of the place. For me, my hometown’s history has allowed me to explore graveyards and churches older than the city or overgrown stretches of land that were home to a twenty-year feud that could rival Old West tales.
I want my friends and neighbors to appreciate what Gary was, not what the media and surrounding towns perceive us to be. I picture my best-selling novels being made into blockbuster movie epics filmed right in the city. The public becomes so interested in and intrigued by the setting that they flock to the place, ushering in a new era that rivals the city’s “Augustan Age” back in the 1920s (a girl can dream, right?)
Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in Lutheran Witness, Splickety Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. She also currently serves as vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing. Read her short stories and blog at


  1. I'm anxious to read about Gary's history filtered through the mind of Michelle! Epic historical dramas filmed in Gary? Why not?

  2. I'm anxious to read about Gary's history filtered through the mind of Michelle! Epic historical dramas filmed in Gary? Why not?