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Minnesota, Nils Shapiro, and a Sense of Place

By Matt Goldman

In my first novel, Gone to Dust, Private Detective Nils Shapiro narrates, “We Minnesotans are not tough-talking people. It doesn’t work here. We sand off our rough edges to play nice and keep our hardness buried deep.”

You may have heard of Minnesota Nice. It’s not our state motto. That’s L’Etoile du Nord—The North Star State. I don’t know why our state motto is in French. The only thing Minnesotans have in common with the French is we’re both dairy-based life forms. Minnesota Nice isn’t on our license plates either—that’s 10,000 Lakes. We actually have closer to 15,000 lakes but Minnesotans are nice. We don’t like to brag.

Yet, Minnesota Nice could be the state motto or on our license plates. It’s real. It doesn’t mean Minnesotans are actually nicer than people who live elsewhere. We just, more often than not, act nicer. It’s a social and cultural lubricant to help us get through the day. Especially in winter, including this past winter when it got down to thirty below zero. Sixty below with wind chill, though now they call it “feels like” instead of wind chill but we all know it’s wind chill just like we all know flatbread is pizza. You can’t just make up new names for things.

Is that snarky? Am I forgetting my Minnesota Nice? You betcha I am. Maybe because I lived and worked in Hollywood for twenty-five years competing to be heard in writers’ rooms full of New Yorkers and Bostonians and skateboard punk Californians. I had to develop an edge to hold my own. Actually, they were all quite lovely, but I developed something akin to an edge, perhaps a somewhat sharper tone.

But now I’m back in Minnesota writing about Minnesotans and have to sheath my edge. Not because I’ll offend, but because the sense of place in private detective Nils Shapiro’s world demands it. Place, like characters, have their own engines and rules. Once created, they don’t serve the writer—the writer serves them. If the writer doesn’t, she or he writes dishonestly, and the reader will sniff it out in a second, know it’s false, and the writer loses the reader’s trust.

A sense of place matters. It’s more than setting. More than geographical location and time or whatever they fed us in school. A sense of place informs how people talk, how they dress, what its society values. In fiction set in New York City, the desire for wealth and power often plays a significant role. In Los Angeles, it’s the desire for fame. In Washington D.C., it’s political power. In Florida, it’s the environment. In the Wild West, it’s individual rights. In the South, it’s the veneer of gentleness. In Minnesota, it’s blend in—don’t be loud and flashy. These, of course, are generalizations. Any of those desires can motivate a person anywhere. People behave in all sorts of ways in all those places. But in mainstream society, if you don’t abide by the specific subculture values, you won’t get very far.

Imagine Amy Schumer tailing a young woman at a debutante ball in Memphis, Tennessee. Or Larry the Cable Guy working undercover in The Yale Club in Manhattan. Or John Wayne infiltrating a Portland, Oregon, raw food vegan restaurant.

As comedic premises, they’re classic fish-out-of-water situations ripe for hijinks and tomfoolery. In serious crime fiction, they don’t work.

Minnesota private detective Nils Shapiro wants information. That’s his job. He has to investigate in a manner that allows him to blend in and motivate his fellow Minnesotans to cooperate. He’s polite and unassuming. He doesn’t threaten violence. He plays nice. At least to everyone’s face.

But in his thoughts, Nils unsheathes his edge. In his thoughts, he doesn’t have to be Minnesota Nice.

Minnesota is the North Star State. The North Star, over most of human history, was used to navigate. My North Star is Raymond Chandler. His private investigator Philip Marlow told dark stories with a comedic voice. I’ve set my compass in that direction. I may never get to where I’m going, but Nils Shapiro and I are having a hell of a good time on the journey.

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