In reality, Cincinnati has a population of over 300,000; through various media, it’s even more. With film, television, books, and theater, Cincinnati is encapsulated through time as a place both real life and fictional characters choose to live.
For writers, November is known as National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo) — an annual internet-based creative writing project where participants produce a 50,000-word manuscript by the end of the month. To keep the creative juices flowing, we spoke with three authors who chose Cincinnati as their story’s backdrop.
Cincinnati transplant Jessica Strawser is the author of Almost Missed You (2017), Not That I Could Tell You (2018), and her third novel, Forget You Know Me, comes out in February 2019.
Her debut book, Almost Missed You, follows the troubled and mysterious lives of one couple and their toddler son through present-day prose and flashbacks, many of which take place in Cincinnati.
“I have lived in Cincinnati for nearly my entire adult life, going on 20 years,” she says on choosing the area for part of her setting. “I have come to love the city, first as a starry-eyed transplant exploring this new territory independently, and now as a parent raising my own children here.”
Her second novel, Not That I Could Tell You, takes place in the eclectic and energetic Yellow Springs.
“Not That I Could Tell required a more intimate setting to frame the plot,” she says. “I chose Yellow Springs, a town where I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the years and knew I’d enjoy living in my imagination for the duration of the story.”
“As a reader, I love stories grounded in real locations,” she adds, “and as a writer it brings me satisfaction to render places that are meaningful to me on the page. I gladly accept invitations to visit with local book clubs whenever I’m able, and seeing both novels so well received close to home has been an amazing experience.”
True, there is a certain satisfaction in reading a story knowing the place exists fully in reality. But it begs the question — how much does a writer change?
“I took some liberties with the timeline in Almost Missed You,” she says. “My author’s note acknowledges that I had to bend the years of Lumenocity to fit the story, for instance. In Not That I Could Tell, I portrayed things like my favorite hike in John Bryan State Park accurately, but I did dream up a full moon festival that doesn’t exist in exactly that form, and took liberties with more obscure details such as the inside of the police interrogation rooms.”
Despite these minor liberties, Strawser tends to keep things how she remembers them. “Overall, I try to stay true to my own experiences and perceptions of the heart of a place, while acknowledging that everyone’s perspective is unique.”
Having Cincinnati in her novel was something Strawser didn’t think twice about. “Given that both Almost Missed You and Not That I Could Tell were also published in the U.K. this year, I love the idea of readers so far away reading about our corner of the world,” she says.
Cherie Dawn Haas
Cherie Dawn Haas
Cherie Dawn Haas wrote the first draft of her debut novel, Girl on Fire (2016), during National Novel Writing Month — a feat that challenged her and, ultimately, empowered her.
“Participating meant making my writing a priority,” she says. “I made writing the draft one of my most important projects by spending time on it daily when possible, blocking out hours just as I would for something else that was important.”
Her novel, Girl on Fire, follows a troubled young girl in Cincinnati who turns to the underground world of fire arts and its community as refuge, and is loosely based on the writer’s own experiences.
While working on her draft, Haas focused on her day job and her family, and chose to put the rest second until she reached her goal, something made easier by the community of participants.
“I loved being a part of the #NaNoWriMo community — checking in on Twitter, for example, was a motivating way to keep going and to remember that there were many other writers out there who were going through the same ups and downs that I was experiencing.
“Cincinnati is a surprisingly eclectic city if you know where to look,” she continues. “While writing Girl on Fire, I actually changed it a couple of times; in an early draft I was going to set the location as a different city to change it up more because the novel is inspired by my experiences as a local fire dancer.”
Through critique from one of her beta readers, she was challenged to keep the story set in Cincinnati, saving her hours of research she could spend on writing in order to meet her NaNoWriMo goal. It’s a decision she’s happy she made.
“With it being based in Cincinnati, the novel is more authentic,” she says. “I think it also represents an underground part of our city in a good light.”
Spending so much time in both the real and fictional Cincinnati during the NaNoWriMo challenge intensified her ties to the city.
“It has deepened my love for this region,” she says, “especially when new readers discover my book. I often hear comments such as, ‘I had no idea anything like that existed around here.’”
Justine Aimee McNulty
Justine Aimee McNulty
Justine Aimee McNulty received her bachelor’s degree and master degree in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati, but has been writing ever since she can remember.
Her debut collection, Sweet Rot, goes on pre-sale in March 2019. The collection of twelve stories examines youth, belonging, and mortality through the lens of the natural world.
“Place and tone are the most important things for me in writing,” she says.
Though much of the collection takes place in Kentucky and New England, many of the stories have settings that incorporate visual elements that come directly from Cincinnati.
“There are definite places in Cincinnati that come through in my work,” she says. “A zoo is part of one of my stories and I describe an alligator pit, and I’m literally describing the reptile house at the Cincinnati Zoo. Things like that come in all the time. It comes out without me really trying.”
“I’m drawn to places that feel magical to me, that have that surreal feeling,” she adds. “Whether it’s because they’re important to me or where I was in my life when I was around them. Thinking about areas in Clifton, like Ludlow, seems magical to me; and Clifton House, where I dropped off multiple visiting writers to the school — that was such a magical time in my life that I’m drawn to those kinds of places to write about.”
It’s a sentiment that goes deeper, since McNulty began her education at Miami University and transferred to the University of Cincinnati after her freshman year — a change that, had it not been made, could have had a lasting impact of her writing and inspiration.
“It felt like settling for UC,” she says, “and then it became the best decision I ever made in my life. It gave me so many great friends; it gave me my M.A. The teachers at UC and my classmates are the reason that this collection exists. I would not be here without them.”
McNulty and her husband Luke Fraley currently live in Ann Arbor, but do hope to move back to Cincinnati after Fraley finishes his medical schooling, and she hopes to explore the city further in her writing, both as it is today and as it was historically.
“I’m really interested in German culture, I took German in school, I visited in high school and when I studied abroad,” she says. “Cincinnati has a huge German history. That is interesting to me — not only Cincinnati as it is now, but Cincinnati as it has been.”