Cambrian: Slice of Life

Finding ourselves in novels

Have you ever been blithely reading along in an engrossing novel and discovered that the story line suddenly had shifted to your own hometown?

Startling, isn’t it?

That’s especially true for those of us in relatively remote areas, such as our own North Coast of San Luis Obispo County. Let’s face it, Cambria isn’t New York or Paris, and San Simeon isn’t Malibu (although, in William Randolph Hearst’s day, it came close at times).

For most of us, those differences are part of why we moved here. We love our towns as much for what they’re not as for what they are.

Still, most of us don’t expect to find modified versions of our communities in the fiction we’re reading. Especially not in four books in a row, as I did recently.

Husband Richard and I regularly check out from 15 to 25 assorted kinds of books at a time from the Cambria Library. Some are novels, often mysteries, which frequently are in series featuring the same characters. Sometimes, the continuing protagonists skip around the country, but usually they stay in one general geographic area to track down their perps.

So it can be a bit of a shock when the action shifts, however briefly, to Cambria or the North Coast.

No, I wasn’t surprised to uncover our-town replicas in books by some local or formerly local authors, such as Catherine Ryan Hyde, Mara Purl and Christopher Moore. And I expect a mention or two of SLO County towns in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series. After all, Grafton’s private investigator protagonist is based in a Santa Barbara clone-town and Milhone has family in Lompoc.

However, Earlene Fowler lives in La Puente, and she has plunked her quilters’ mysteries into a fictionalized version of San Luis Obispo County. She identifies some locations by the towns’ real names, such as Paso Robles, Cayucos or Templeton. The Tribune, Cal Poly and the Mid-State Fair also are included under their own names as slightly camouflaged versions of themselves.

Other locales’ monikers are a nod-and-a-wink-different, such as “San Celina” for San Luis Obispo.

Fowler wrote about the books’ split geographic personality in the forward to her latest Benni Harper Ortiz mystery, “State Fair.” She explained that, in her first book in the series, “because I didn’t know what else to do, I fictionalized all the towns Benni actually went to in San Celina County (inspired by San Luis Obispo County). The towns she just mentioned in passing well, I used their real names, not guessing I’d ever actually have to write about them.

“So (13 books later), I’m stuck with a fictional county with half ‘real’ names and half fictional ones.”

I also never expected author Marcia Muller would bring Sharon McCone, a quirky and urbane Bay Area PI, down to our county. But sure enough, in Muller’s 2006 “Vanishing Point,” the protagonist searched throughout SLOCO for a client’s long-lost mother.

My real home-and-fiction shocker came in Sue McGinty’s book, a fictionalized, thinly disguised takeoff from the Los Osos sewer saga.

(You’ve seen that wonderful bumper sticker, I suppose? “Los Osos: We can’t agree on s__t!”).

In “Murder in Los Obos,” McGinty, who lives in Los Osos, changed the names of towns and players to protect the innocent and the guilty, some of whom are fairly identifiable anyway.

I was merrily reading along, chuckling at the interweaving of fact and fiction, when at the bottom of Page 128, I ran into a psychological brick wall.

McGinty’s book had a character named Kathy Tanner.

Yes, there are pages and pages of Kathy Tanners on Facebook. It’s not really an uncommon name, especially when it’s spelled that way.

Even so. Stumbling on a character who shares my name in a novel that’s set in my home county is just too eerie for words, excuse the pun.

The fact that McGinty’s Kathy Tanner is a tall, skinny, black librarian didn’t soften the stop-me-short moment one iota.

So, I guess coincidences abound just about as often in fiction as they do in real life, and each one has its own level of surprise. But, still, four in row?

Note: According to Cambria librarian Joen Kommer, the county’s library computer system lists 374 titles of books that relate somehow to San Luis Obispo or the county of the same name, such as “Body in Bubble Gum Alley,” “Bare Body on the Bear,” “Curse of the Feathered Snake and other stories.” For more, check at the Cambria Public Library at 900 Main St.

Note 2: Have you experienced anything like that in books, magazines, films or on TV? Write me about it at P.O. Box 67, Cambria CA 93428, or e-mail me at, or stop me at the grocery store or the farmers market. We’ll both have a good giggle, and then I’ll share your hometown surprises with our readers.