20 Little Details If You Want to Set a Story in Los Angeles

Los Angeles downtown sunset cityscape

By Matthew Field, http://www.photography.mattfield.com (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. In Southern California, freeways are always prefixed with a definite article.  “Take the 101 to the 405 to the 10 to the PCH . . .”
  2. Because of earthquakes and the lack of a frost line, houses with basements are rare.  I’ve only ever seen one residential place with a basement here and it was sort of a quasi-basement that was halfway a ground floor because the house was built onto the side of a hill; it wasn’t fully underground.  (Underground parking lots are frequent, though.)
  3. Speaking of earthquakes, we get ’em, but they usually aren’t a big deal, and a lot of times you won’t even feel them.  But even though they’re usually pretty eh, they’re just rare enough that when one happens everyone goes around saying, “OMG did you feel the earthquake this morning??!!” and posts it to their Facebooks, even when they’re just tremors.  I usually feel maybe 1 earthquake a year on average and am aware of 1 or 2 more I didn’t feel but other people did.
  4. That stereotype about every waiter / bartender / barista here being an out-of-work actor / dancer / screenwriter / musician?  TRUE.  At least in large part, heh.  Lots of other people live here with no desire to work in Hollywood, though.
    It’s not uncommon for [the raging traffic] to impact where people are willing to do hobbies, where they look for jobs, and even the people they’re willing to date.
  5. There’s a stereotype that everyone in LA is a transplant.  Although a lot of people are, I do know a decent number of people here who grew up here.
  6. LA is a very diverse city, to the point where any fiction that shows LA as lily white makes me skeptical on realistic grounds.  In particular, we have a lot of Hispanic people.  A lot.  In general, I can’t think of a minority demographic that isn’t solidly represented among people I know (though unlike in the Midwest or Southwest, most of the people I know with Native American blood — and I have like 6 or 7 friends who do — look white and do not feel connected to the Native culture, only have the genetic background . . . though I also know a few who are very invested in their Native heritage).
  7. Cost of living, like in most cities, is pretty high, but because of the sprawl it’s a little easier to find a part of town where a bigger apartment and/or house might be more affordable.  Other parts of town, not so much.
  8. LA is more like a bunch of little cities and regions mashed into one.  Most people here consider “LA” to mean “LA County” in the broadest sense, including places that are separate municipalities, like Santa Monica and Pasadena.  But every smaller part of LA, even the ones that aren’t their own cities, have “village” names, so if you ask someone in LA where they live, they’re likely to give you the regional name —
    Parts of LA are very citified; others [are] very residential. 
    “Van Nuys” or “Westwood” or “Downtown.”  They might also answer more broadly, like by saying “the Westside” or “the Valley,” which are regions that include a lot of different littler regions.  All the overlapping regional names, as well as which parts are separate cities (West Hollywood is, North Hollywood is not,[1] what), are very confusing to newcomers, and even sometimes to people who have lived here a while.
  9. “Hollywood” is both a geographical part of town and a name for the film industry.  So if you say you “work in Hollywood,” that could mean your job exists on a street in the geographical region of Hollywood, or that you live nowhere near Hollywood but you work in film.  It’s usually clear which is meant by the context.
  10. Mass transit here kinda sucks.  The subways don’t go all that many places, and buses cover the rest of the city, but they take forever.  Trying to get somewhere on a bus might take three hours.
  11. Because of the sprawl and the raging traffic, it also might take hours to get somewhere in a car at rush hour.  Angelenos know every trick in the book to get around traffic, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, and “an hour to go five miles” situations are not uncommon in certain parts of town at certain times of day.  Or if there’s an accident.  (It’s not uncommon for this to impact where people are willing to do hobbies, where they look for jobs, and even the people they’re willing to date.)
  12. I do know some people without cars, but it’s much, much, much rarer than in other cities — the assumption would be that a person living in Los Angeles has a car.  Even most students have cars.
  13. In some parts of town street parking is easy.  In other parts it is impossible.  Know which part of town you’re in if you want your characters to be able to park.
  14. Parking tickets are a fact of life.  I do not know a single person here who has never gotten a parking ticket.[2]  This is partly because parking regulations can be complicated and absurd and are different everywhere you go.
  15. Parts of LA are very citified; others have pockets that are very residential.  Once again, this is a product of the sprawl.
  16. It does rain here, but is only likely during part of the year (the wet season, which roughly correlates with winter).  When it does rain, it’s the “relentless downpour” type; thunderstorms are almost unheard of.  The rest of the year you can go months and months and months in a row with blue skies.
  17. Desert, woods, mountains, beaches, forests — Los Angeles is surrounded by all of them (this is part of why so many films can be set here so easily).  You may have to specify a region, however — for instance, pine forests are exceedingly unlikely unless you’re up in the mountains, in which case they’re gorgeous.
  18. Palm trees are all over the place here.
  19. Motorcycles can split lanes in California. (And helmets are required by law.)
  20. Alcohol is sold in grocery stores in California.
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. For a while I had three different library cards because I frequented two parts of town that did not consider themselves technically Los Angeles.
  2. As time in LA increases, probability of getting a parking ticket approaches 1.

About the author

SL Huang (aka MathPencil)
SL Huang (aka MathPencil)

SL Huang justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero books. Debut novel: Zero Sum Game, a speculative fiction thriller.
Website: www.slhuang.com
Twitter: @sl_huang


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  • Wow, that certainly edumakated me on stuffsies i did not know before. Like the fact that alcohol is sold in grocery stores in LA – is it not in the rest of the US? I kinda assumed it was, although now I think about it, every time anyone in a film buys alcohol, it is always from a ‘liquor store’. I just assumed this was a film convention to make it more obvious that’s what they’re buying, because ‘i’m going to the store’ could be to buy anything. But I is learning and I likes eet!!!

    • Ha! Yeah, the main response I seem to be getting on this piece is, “Wait, you mean there are places that DON’T sell alcohol in grocery stores???”

      Having grown up in NJ (where they don’t) and gone to college in Massachusetts (where they can’t even sell alcohol on Sundays), I can assure you that our Puritan roots are still alive and well in some areas of the country. And yeah, I don’t get it either. It’s not like we Californias turn all supermarkets into drunken party havens . . .

  • This was something that struck me… even the smaller grocery stores here will have alcohol. Going to have to make a note of this post as it’s going to come in super useful for me.

  • I remember dining at a restaurant on the Westside once, and I noticed how every waiter was like super handsome. Since then I’ve seen the same thing at many other local restaurants.

    Another time I was out-of-state (can’t remember if it was Canada or another U.S. state), and I went into a supermarket to look for alcohol. Was shocked when I was told by a clerk that grocery stores didn’t sell alcohol. I was so disappointed.

    • I DON’T GEDDIT EITHER! If supermarkets stopped selling booze over here there’d be a repeat of the 2011 riots… 🙂 i mean, wot do you do if you just want a nice bottle of wine to go with the meal you’ve just shopped for? Go to another shop? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? that’s like… effort.

      • I KNOW. Gah. Effort!

        If I ever live in one of those places again, every time I go to a party I’ll have to say, “Thanks for having me! Here’s your bottle of grape juice.” I guess the other option is to stock up and buy ALL THE LIQUOR when at the liquor store . . .

      • Don’t worry, bunneh. It’s just a matter of time before Amazon delivers pizza and a nice vintage of merlot to your home via drones. And soon enough, the same drones will take away your dishes and bring them back clean.

  • Great post! I lived in LA most of my life and can relate to everything you’ve said. Quick note about the blog though, the font kinda turns me off. It’s way too big and makes me feel like I need to adjust the scale of the page to make the text fit better, but it’s so thin that this makes it hard to read. Also, I feel the comment viewing system needs to be more intuitive. I tried clicking on the comment bubble, but it didn’t link me straight to the comments section. I had to click on the “Add comments” link, which isn’t straightforward at all. Also, having to scroll up after reading the articles to get to the comment link is kind of annoying. I think you should make it more accessible to casual readers, otherwise they’d just give up. Just my 2 cents!

    • Thank you so much Agnes for your pennies! And thanks for your patience in trying to comment. I totally get your frustration. Your feedback will help us refine the site so we can make it more user friendly.

    • Oh, I’m glad the post rang true to you! 😀 And thanks for all the feedback on the blog aesthetics & navigation — we’re still tweaking things as we realize what works in practice, so that is SUPER useful to us. Seconding the donkeh, we’re looking into everything you said and will be implementing some changes. 🙂 Thanks again!

  • Really am enjoying your new group blog. Great write-up on living in Los Angeles. Definitely a different sort of culture compared to New Jersey.

    • …it’s possible one of my betas on my latest book left a comment along the lines of, “okay, I know the traffic is realistic for LA — but I’m getting sort of sick of reading about it.”

      To be fair, I get sick of living in it. 😉

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