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36 Little Details If You Want to Set a Story at MIT
5 Things NOT To Include If You Set Your Story In Seattle
The Glam and the Gristle
20 Little Details If You Want to Set a Story in Los Angeles

36 Little Details If You Want to Set a Story at MIT

  1. Classes are referred to by number, NOT by name (it’s 18.014, not “Calculus with Theory” — we usually didn’t even know the names).
  2. Majors are referred to by number, not by name (it’s course 8, not Physics).
  3. Buildings are referred to by number, not by name (it’s Building 2, not . . . oh, you get the idea).
  4. There’s no central dining hall; you can’t talk about “the MIT dining hall.”
  5. There’s no central library; you can’t say, “meet me at the library” unless you already know which one.
  6. There’s no meal plan.  You have a student account linked to your student ID, but you pay for what you eat, and the account is just money and can equally be used for things like books.
  7. The campus store is called The Coop (pronounced like the thing a chicken lives in, not Co-Op), but some of the more theoretical science and math texts are only at Quantum Books.  The student card can be used both places, as well as at a few local eateries.
  8. MIT has its own slang — and a lot of it.  Punt, tool, cruft, hack, psets, fingering, Twinkies, IHTFP . . .
  9. As of some years ago, you can’t have more than two majors, so triple majors are out.  You can have up to two minors as well, but not every subject offers a minor (computer science[1] doesn’t, for example; if it did I would have one!).
  10. You can’t say you’re majoring in “engineering.”  First of all, see #2, and second of all, there’s no such major — 10 out of the (approximately) 24 different courses of study are different kinds of engineering.
  11. The computer clusters are called “Athena clusters” and mostly run Linux (at least, they did when I was there; they’d started to get a few Windows machines my senior year for certain kinds of software).
  12. Some people go by their Athena usernames.  Even the people with unpronounceable usernames, such as sets of initials, get them used as nicknames occasionally.
  13. Dorms all have their own character and culture and students choose where they live, so the dorm a student lives in can say a lot about that student’s personality.  The various dorms / sections of campus (East vs. West) / dorms vs. frats all mock and judge each other — sometimes gently, sometimes . . . less gently.
  14. It’s not unusual to have your own room as an undergraduate, though you can have a roommate if you want one.  I had my own room from sophomore year on; most students have roommates during
    Drinking and partying happen if you want [them], but […] they’re incredibly easy to avoid if you don’t
    freshman year but I could have had a single that year too if I’d wanted one.  Depending on the dorm, rooms can be quite spacious rather than the stereotypical college closet.
  15. Drinking and partying happen if you want that kind of college experience, but unlike at some other universities, they’re incredibly easy to avoid if you don’t want them, and plenty of people have no interest in that kind of student life.
  16. Despite the number of fraternities, Greek life is little more than a footnote to those who aren’t in it; the most I can say about frats is that I had a few friends who were in them, and I think I was inside a frat a grand total of one time.
  17. Aside from premeds, the undergraduate student body is remarkably uncompetitive, because classes are hard enough that intra-student competition becomes a lot more meaningless.
  18. There’s no grade inflation.  Professors do use grading curves at their own discretion, usually to align the mean to a certain number (say, 70) and the standard deviations to the right places.  I’ve never heard of an MIT professor curving scores down; there’s rarely a problem with exams being too easy.
  19. Unlike at Caltech, women are not a rarity — the undergraduate ratio is something like 40/60 women.  In certain classes, however, the gender ratio is far more skewed; I was one of only two women in my 18.034 class, and was the only woman in my 18.515 class.  (These are both super theoretical math classes and had probably totaled 13 and 8 people respectively.)
  20. MIT is reasonably diverse.  There are a lot of international students, and any fiction set at MIT with no Asian-American characters I will call shenanigans on.  Other minorities have smaller populations, but almost every class or student group or dorm will have at least some African-American and Hispanic students, and one of the rarest demographics is actually the Midwestern white boy.[2]
  21. If you pick a non-math, non-science academic subject (literature, music, philosophy, history . . .) and start talking to an MIT student about it, it’s more likely than not that that student is way more knowledgeable than the average person about it.
  22. If you pick a pop culture subject that isn’t science fiction/fantasy, however,
    My friend didn’t realize we had a cheerleading squad until after we had graduated.
    all bets are off.  Some MIT students are up on popular media; others are completely clueless.
  23. Students tend to be highly politically aware on a general level, though may or may not keep up with current events while in college.  Students who do follow politics tend to do so passionately, no matter where on the spectrum they fall (and yes, MIT has students with a HUGE diversity of political perspectives, from intensely conservative to burningly liberal and everything in between — or off the axis entirely).
  24. Students tend to be either highly religious or highly nonreligious (casual Sunday churchgoers are rare).  Atheism/agnosticism are much, much more common than in the general population, almost to the point of being the default assumption, but people who are religious aren’t uncommon, and are extremely well-thought-out and passionate about their religions.
  25. In general, MIT students tend to be passionately intense about every aspect of their lives, from hobbies to personal philosophies to independent projects.  You can find student groups related to almost any interest under the sun, and the people in them are usually really into them.
  26. Sports are a lot smaller deal than at other schools, and the ones with hardcore teams tend to be sports such as fencing and pistol, and not, say, football.  I didn’t even know we had a football team until my junior year.  (My friend didn’t realize we had a cheerleading squad until after we had graduated.)  This isn’t meant to be judgmental about football and cheerleading; my point is just that they have next to no impact on student life so it’s easy not to notice we have them, which is the opposite of most schools.
  27. University rivalries: Harvard and Caltech.  These rivalries are not about sports.[3]
  28. Cross-registration is allowed between MIT and Harvard and MIT and Wellesley.  Every once in a while I’d run into a Harvard or Wellesley student,
    Geek traits are sexually desirable.
    and I knew a few guys dating Wellesley girls.  I took one course at Harvard and it was easy to do; I also knew a few other people who did it.  I didn’t know anybody who tried MIT-to-Wellesley cross-registration — I’m sure it was equally doable; it just wasn’t common.
  29. You expect the math/science/engineering education to be good, but humanities classes are also excellent (usually just as high-caliber).  There is an eight-class humanities requirement, but many students take many more than that by choice.  You can also major in humanities subjects, which a fair number of people do, sometimes as a double major but I did know a few single-major students in literature or history of polisci.[4]
  30. There’s a four-class PE requirement, but you can satisfy it with awesome things like ping-pong and pistol.  You also can’t graduate without taking a swim test.
  31. Hygiene is often considered way more optional than it should be.
  32. MIT has a 5-point grading scale, so a 5.0 is someone with a perfect GPA. 
  33. There are no Latin honors or class rank.  You cannot graduate summa cum laude from MIT — no, not even if you’re Tony Stark.
  34. Mass transit in Boston is so good that almost no one has a car.  I think I knew one person who had one.
  35. The subway is called the T.  The T line that goes to MIT is the Red Line, and the stop is Kendall Square.
  36. In some ways dating is easier at MIT because geek traits are sexually desirable.  In other ways it’s a mess because everybody gets so in their heads about it.  Some of my friends didn’t date until they got to MIT because of not-fitting-in issues in high school; but a lot of us — sometimes overlapping with the first set — find dating post-MIT a lot easier, because the social stakes and hangups regarding it are a lot lower in the real world.[5]

Disclaimer: All of this is true when I was there; some of the factual specifics may have changed.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “Course 6” if you’re talking to someone from MIT.
  2. I think my class had exactly two students from West Virginia; I knew that because I knew both of them.
  3. There is a pretty decent respect for both schools, though, despite the rivalries.  Also, in our more lucid moments we realize that most of Harvard doesn’t really care about us and would much rather war with Yale.
  4. And that’s courses 22, 21H, and 17, as far as your characters are concerned.
  5. Yes, I said the social stakes surrounding dating are lower in the real world than at MIT.  Dating is always complicated, but far too often MIT students — particularly men — get their self-esteems tied up in their dating success, and there’s a good chance that turning someone down for a date will utterly crush him.  It’s awful.

5 Things NOT To Include If You Set Your Story In Seattle

5. Do not use the phrase sleepless in Seattle or any variation thereof.

There’s a shitload of sleeping in Seattle. In December we barely have daytime. The sun doesn’t peek up until, like, 8 in the morning and it’s gone again at 4 o’clock, and during every one of those 8 hours it’s behind a cloud-deck that starts at the tops of the trees and goes to infinity.  Most Seattleites suffer from the depressive effects of SAD. All we want to do is sleep. Why do you think we drink so much coffee?


4. Never have any character say anything about Fraiser.

Fraiser and Eddie didn’t film here. Neither did those Gray’s Anatomy people. (Oh, Patrick Dempsey, why do you shun us?) They just used us for our background shots. However, if you need a Seattle-ish TV reference you could drop in Twin Peaks because…Twin Peaks.


3. Employment at Amazon, Starbucks or Microsoft.

Hundreds of Seattle residents DON’T work at these companies. Tens of hundreds.

If you need a good job for your character, we have a remarkable number of bikini barista stands, and a large number of  undercover cops staking out bikini barista stands. (And also creepy people checking out the cops and the baristas.)

Don’t worry, it’s not sexist. There are men working as bikini baristas, too.


2. A romantic dinner at the Space Needle.

Yeah, fine. It’s kinda cool to have on our skyline, but the Space Needle is a tourist magnet. The ONLY reason Seattle residents actually go there is because we get a rise out of our out-of-town guests saying “Oooh. Ahhh.”

Or prom.  I guess the Space Needle’s a popular place to go for Senior Prom. So…mayyyybe if you’re writing YA…

No, I take it back. Just don’t do it.


And the Number One thing NOT to include…

Rain. Rain!

Fine. It rains here. We get it. Screw you, Lewis and Clark for making such a big deal out of it. You came from Washington DC. They get more rain than Seattle. Manhattan gets 9 more inches of rain a year than Seattle. 

It’s sunny here. I swear. *crosses fingers under North Face raincoat*

What does rain add to a narrative, anyway? Straggly hair and beads of moisture on your MCs polar fleece is about it. It’s so passe to have your character begin an internal monologue while watching raindrops inch down a picture window, don’t you think? Go for something more original. Have your Seattle-based character gasp in alarm because of the thick band of dog snot she sees when the sun slants through the glass. Monologue? There’s no time for monologue! Where’s the Windex?


I’m sure I left a few NOTs out. Feel free to add to the list in the comment section.  Think of it this way: You could be saving a future novelist, cartoonist or playwright from making a grave Seattle error.

The Glam and the Gristle

A couple of nights ago, Pencil uttered these words:

You know, I think circus books bug me for the same reason that books set on film sets or at MIT bug me. It feels like the author is in a sense looking in and being like ‘OOO THAT’S SO COOOL SEE HOW COOOOL’.”

It wasn’t long before a feature length discussion ignited in the menagerie, those of us present reflecting on how some settings in books and movies tend to feel inauthentic due to author intrusion and a general reverence for a particular backdrop. In short, we’d noticed a few reads where the ‘ooh shiny’ factor morphed into a laminated stereotype. Glamourous, but lacking depth – and a far cry from reality.

A common piece of writing wisdom is to treat your setting as another character. I agree with that, wholeheartedly; ideally, a setting should be as well-rounded and integral to the story as a leading character. Some of the best books I’ve ever read are so deeply entwined with their setting, it’s difficult to imagine the stories taking place elsewhere. A good setting doesn’t just serve as an interesting backdrop; it influences the character’s actions, thoughts and feelings – it flavours the novel, without overpowering it. Some geographic examples would be Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (Trenton) and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter (Miami). Dexter without a vibrant and sunny surface to contrast the darkness within his world would lose a large amount of the humour and charm; similarly, Stephanie’s tight-knit Burg community provides a unique mix of family life and illicit activity – something that highlights and interacts with the different sides to and desires of her character. Relocating either of these series would have a dramatic effect on the storyline, characters and general tone of the novels. Think butterfly wings and hurricanes (only replace the butterfly with a ten-foot-tall prehistoric moth and name it ‘Setting’).

But back to the glamourous. Settings that focus more on professions and industries – the circus, movies, law firms… these seem prone to leaving reality behind at the gate. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the default razzmatazz on television and the page, which is so often two-dimensional… missing out on the complete picture.

“Things aren’t all beautifully dressed people striding about with files in hand.” – Puppy, on onscreen law firms.

But what’s the reality?

Every person that works in one of these environments is doing just that – working. Things that may strike the writer and reader as exotic will be commonplace for the character. Keep that in mind when writing – what is it the character would notice about the setting? How would they interact? A newbie to a film set will notice very different things and interact in a very different way to a jaded veteran.

A good example of this comes from our own Pencil. Pencil was recently reading a novel that takes place on a film set – an environment Pencil has first-hand experience of. Said author had done their research of the setting, but the character (who was supposed to have worked in the biz for quite some time) was presenting the set to the reader with the eyes of an industry virgin.

“The first few chapters read like a middle schooler’s excited “My Day on a Film Set” essay. Every added slang term and industry description felt like it was lit up by flashing neon lights saying LOOK! I KNOW WHAT THE RIGHT WORD IS. And the writer gets them wrong – not very wrong, mind– right enough that anyone not in film would be impressed. But ever so slightly wrong, the way a really green PA might.”

Pencil, with inside knowledge, is always going to be tougher to please than an average reader when it comes to this setting – but it’s not impossible to impress her. Her example of a film set ‘done right’ in fiction comes from the Dresden Files.

“Jim Butcher does an excellent job at it–partly, I think, because Dresden is a complete newcomer to film, so reacts to the set world like an observer who isn’t used to it. That’s admittedly a bit easier to write. But as far as I can remember, all the small details that are thrown in are correct and enjoyable, and it really does feel to me–someone who works in film regularly–like Harry is on a film set. I think part of the key is that Butcher doesn’t try so hard to throw in every possible description of film production he can; instead he treats it like any other setting Harry encounters, peppering it with the occasional detail but not listing every costume Harry sees on a rack in wardrobe storage.”

Quality not quantity of information. No author intrusion, because Harry’s experience of the setting lined up with his familiarity. And this isn’t to say that if he were familiar with a set, he’d need to spill a stomachful of technical details across the page – the tip of the research iceberg is usually sufficient convey the setting and character’s knowledge of it. In most cases it’s best to learn as much as you can on a subject or setting, but to use just a sprinkle of that information – the minimum to taste.

And then there’s the mundane side of the magic. For all the dazzle, some of the most memorable details in a ‘glamourous’ setting are the ones that bring it back down to earth. The gristle.

“Who wants to watch everybody sit at the catering table checking their phones all day?” – Puppy, on the reality of movie sets.

It doesn’t sound the most thrilling scene[1], but these sorts of details and how they’re presented can help make a setting (and the characters within it) pop. For example, if the people checking their phones on set are doing so while a stuntwoman crashes a burning car – that tells the reader something (as well as providing the opportunity to sprinkle of humour via setting). Consider the mundane elements of the environments you use, and search for the points of interest within them.

Creating a fully-realized setting is a balancing act, and there’s room for both the guts and the glitter of an environment. If I’m reading about a circus, I want acrobatics on the high wire AND the guy in the ticket booth picking popcorn out his teeth. If it’s an outdoor film set, I want the fast cars AND the malfunctioning porta-potty. Recognisable nuggets of realism can help to make a setting feel more rounded and relatable; they can bring the magic home.

They’re the cookie dough in the ice cream. Without them, all you’ve got is vanilla.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Although that could depend on why they’re checking their phones – what they’re expecting.

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.

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