When I shopped Holland Bay around, many people pointed out how real the city of Monticello seemed. My brother-in-law swears I based it on Cleveland, where I’m originally from. (Spoiler alert: He’s never been to Cleveland.) In reality, some of its based on Cincinnati with bits and pieces taken from other cities. For instance, take New York’s Staten Island and drop Atlanta’s Buckheads in the middle of it. That’s Holland Island.
There are bits of Baltimore, of Savannah, of coastal California between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area. But how did it get so realistic?
Simple. Both the Celloverse, which is the fictionalized north central Ohio I write in, and the Compact Universe, my scifi series as TS Hottle, sprang from me playing around with setting. I knew a lot about where these stories would happen before I knew the stories themselves. In this case, I wrote a history of a city called “Port Ontario.” Unfortunately, I hated the name. Also, most of it is welded to the calendar. There are events in the Revolution, War of 1812, the Civil War, and so on that can’t move. Which is too bad, because I really wanted the city’s ex-hippie mayor from the 1970s to turn up as an angry right-wing pundit, the opposite of his free-love days. The premise would work, but when he’s arrested in 1975, he’s going to be a bit too long in the tooth in 2023 to peddle conspiracy theories so Mr. Murdoch can gouge Toyota and P&G for more ad money. So now he’s just part of the backstory who pops up in conversation once in awhile.
But as I wrote the history, I looked at the rest of Ohio over the same two-century span. Cincinnati was a major railroad hub. Cleveland became a booming port city churning out oil, steel, and automobiles. Both cities approached nearly a million inhabitants while Columbus, now large than one New York City borough, was just another prairie town, no different than Springfield, Illinois, or Lincoln, Nebraska. Then American steel collapsed, and so did Detroit. Oil moved to Texas. What did that mean for Monticello?
Monticello, in my history, topped one million residents in the 1950s. Normally, that’s critical mass for a city to become world class. I made its fall more spectacular than Cleveland’s. It’s still, in my fictional Ohio, larger than two of the three C’s (Cleveland and Cincinnati the powerhouses, Columbus a third and now the largest city thanks to tech, banking, and insurance.) But it doesn’t like itself very much. It has a soccer team and hockey, both at the major league level, but it could never lure the NBA or a Major League Baseball team, despite naming a stadium Bernie Kosar Stadium to prevent the original Browns from becoming the Ravens.
To deal with this, I had them break up into boroughs in the 1990s. Now, I worked on Holland Bay off and on since around 2008 or so. (Not continuously. I’m not Brian Griffin.)
But to keep the backstory consistent in my head, I let those events, along with the wacky-mayor-turned-angry-old-white-guy stay on the calendar. But that’s okay. The boroughs told me how to flesh out the series as it went. There is Harbourtown, the city’s “Manhattan,” though it looks a lot like Cincinnati’s downtown if you put the three towers from Cleveland into it. That’s the business district, one of the universities, and some not-so-nice neighborhoods, one of which is the titular Holland Bay. Across a channel in Lake Erie is Holland Island, the aforementioned Staten Island crossed with Buckheads. I wanted a concentration of wealth in the hands of black citizens, enough to make the island a virtual city unto itself. There’s a white enclave of well-off whites, but they’re treated like lottery winners who move into a gated community. Both communities are happy the city’s port is on the north side of their island, but they’re not pleased at all that city leaders have decided to have a lower income neighborhood and a Walmart have spring up on the site of the old landfill. Plus, they have to deal with the changing times: The island’s “downtown” is called “Indian Shoals” at a time when indigenous peoples want to be called something else.
Rock Ridge, the west side, got its name from a joke. I wrote about one of those cross-river wars that made pre-Civil War Ohio a statewide carnival. For Monticello, it was over where a railyard would go. I wanted to call it something like “Shawnee Heights” or “Musgrave Bluff.” Rock Ridge was a placeholder because the dispute was over “where the choo choo go.” Jim Winter not know. Jim Winter only pawn in game of life. It’s opponent back in the early days was another city, Vodrey Heights, now the city’s east side and where the choo choo used to go. (Sorry, that was named for a friend. No Blazing Saddles jokes.) Unfortunately, Rock Ridge stuck.
Midtown is the industrial heart of the city. The dying heart. Its auto plants churn out Japanese and German cars now, the steel mill having changed hands several times, twice while I wrote Holland Bay, once while I worked on Harbourtown. The Old Locomotive Plant, which once fed the city’s rail industry, is now something of a local ruin, inhabited by homeless and used by prostitutes. And then there’s Edison, named for Thomas Edison, who really was born in Milan, Ohio. Only Milan is a suburb in the Celloverse. In reality, it occupies the same space but it’s basically a prairie town just south of Lake Erie in the real world. Edison was once surrounding suburbs in the Celloverse. Then the city absorbed them, all but one, as depicted in Holland Bay, which wanted to remain an egregious speed trap. By the time we meet Branson and company, the borough still looks like a bunch of towns in search of of city center, kind of like LA. Two former towns are even depicted as still having up their rusty corporation limit signs despite their town governments no longer existing.
I also wrote about the families of the movers and shakers, the colorful figures who make up a city, and the places they created. Once you have those, you have the means to name streets and neighborhoods. I even corrupted a few names as happens. For instance, Serievo began as a largely Croatian enclave, but subsequent occupation by later groups changed the spelling from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, to “Serievo,” a heavily anglicized spelling. There are histories of the sports teams I can’t use, like the old Cleveland Barons moving to Monticello instead of merging with the Minnesota North Stars to give the city a hockey team. Which is fine. I call them the Huskies. It has its own cheap, watery beer, Ol’ Muskie. I did include grocery chain Giant Eagle, a Pittsburgh company that dominates the Cleveland area. While I’ve lived over thirty years in Kroger territory, Kroger pulled out of Northern Ohio in the late eighties, allowing Giant Eagle to fill the vacuum. They made a natural connection to the real world, particularly since I’m just giving name to Branson’s preferred grocery store. I could have made one up, but I seriously doubt it’s ever going to be a plot point. Certainly, I’m not going to have a Giant Eagle manager murder a bag boy in a fit of rage. If I do, I’ll have to make up a new chain.
Those are the things that make a city real. And they get sprinkled into the narrative, not shoved in your face every other paragraph. The characters and storylines came from other bits I worked on: an aborted PI novel, a post-9/11 thriller that explained the squad’s origins, a scene where one of the city’s drug lords eschewed Dr. Dre for Bob Dylan. But if writers are cooks, then a novel or a series is a stew.
And setting is the broth.
Of course, the one question I haven’t answered: Monticello. Why that name? Why not the original Port Ontario? Or a C name to go with Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Simple. A soap my mother actually did not like. (And this woman introduced me to Dark Shadows while I was still a toddler. Thanks, Mom!) Edge of Night, unlike most soaps in the 1960s through 1980s, did not revolve around a hospital or the seedy doings of a small town. It was a crime show. Until its final seasons, the credits rolled over a twilight shot of downtown Cincinnati. The setting? Monticello. Or, as Procter & Gamble liked to call it within its hallowed halls, Not Cincinnati. Reading about the show, I noticed there were a lot of veiled references to Ohio in the show. I didn’t lift anything suggestive of Edge of Night. I was way too young to remember my grandma watching it (and not old enough to realize how cheesy Dark Shadows was.) In fact, my Monticello was an homage to the only soap “not” set in Ohio (despite sharing a credits establishing shot with WKRP in Cincinnati.) In fact, from the descriptions, it looks like Cleveland and Pittsburgh hooked up one night before a Browns-Steelers game and had a mutant spawn: High bluffs over a crooked river, but at least no Yinzer accents or Certain Ethnic jokes. Or kielbasa.
I should probably fix the kielbasa thing.
Hey, Lance, can I put out revised versions of Holland Bay and The Dogs of Beaumont Heights? I left out the Rust Belt’s primary source of protein. Things things are important, yanno!
And if you want to find out more about Monticello and its various boroughs and neighborhoods, check out The Dogs of Beaumont Heights, the latest Holland Bay novel.