1. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Authors using unfamiliar settings

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by arkadia, Jan 17, 2016.

    This is a rant I've been carrying for years...
    Why do authors set novels in locations where they've never been, or only passed through on a guided tour, once? I've read several such books and it's so irritating.

    A Christian fiction book I read recently was a particularly good example. The book was set in Chicago, clearly the author's home town. All the descriptions had a very genuine feel to them (caveat - I've never been there). The plot then moves on to Paris and Jerusalem, two places I have familiarity with. And then it just totally falls like a pancake. The author doesn't know these cities and sounds like he's quoting a guide book. Next to no grasp on the local culture, some blatant and culturally insensitive mistakes.

    I've come across this so many times and I really wish that authors would either stick with locations they know, research properly or at run the scene description by somebody who lives in the place in question.

    Perhaps I'm being horrible, and some of these books are targetted at audiences that don't care... But for me, a book takes a nose dive when the setting moves to a location the author obviously doesn't know.

    Phew - that felt good!!!
     
  2. NiallRoach
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    NiallRoach Contributing Member

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    I think it's half that most readers don't care too much; the majority of people are not going to live in the chosen location, particularly not if it's a US published book and the setting is Jerusalem.
    Secondly, there's maybe a bit of people thinking that they know what they're talking about when really they've no idea. This is probably the case with places like NYC. They've seen so much stuff about NYC that they think they can do it justice, but they really can't.
     
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  3. HistoricalScience
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    HistoricalScience Active Member

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    I think unfamiliar settings are more interesting to write about. I'll do my research and visit if I can but what if it's set in the past? Or the future? No one living today can be completely familiar with a setting in year 1500 nor 2500, I don't care how much research you do.

    I visited the Badlands in South Dakota for my novel which takes place in 1868. You can usually bet protected landscapes like that won't change much over 150 years but certainly not in all cases. The Badlands erodes almost an entire inch every year :)

    It's a shame if it takes you out of the story but, as a writer, I understand that there will always be people who have more expertise on what I'm writing about than I and may see through it to some degree. I just hope it doesn't distract them from the story.
     
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  4. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Well in the case of HistoricalScience I totally agree.
    And of course, in Science Fiction or Fantasy it's not a problem.

    The issue is for example, if a character is supposed to be a life-long Londoner. However in his everyday movements he's doing things only a tourist would do, like shop at Harrods, have high tea and sit at the top front seat in a double-decker.

    I would perhaps not catch it as easily if it's a place I don't know much about, but if it's somewhere I'm familiar with, and it just doesn't seem genuine at all, then it's distracting and irritating.

    In the Christian book I mentioned, the author had some very misguided views on Palestinans, and can't have done much research at all. It seemed to be based on some brief watching of Fox News clips. The plot until then was quite interesting, and the scenes from the US felt very genuine. Then the author just stopped caring about the realism of the setting.

    People should think carefully before they set a novel in a real-life, modern-day location that many readers may be thoroughly familiar with.

    For example, I would be a complete fool if I tried to have anything happen in modern day New York, given I don't know the first thing about it. A weekend trip or reading a guidebook won't help, I think!
     
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2016
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  5. HistoricalScience
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    HistoricalScience Active Member

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    I agree with you and if you can't visit/spend time in a particular location then you should at least talk to people who have. Before I hiked and camped in the Badlands, I asked my friends about it who had. No amount of research can mimic a real life experience but in some cases you have to.

    I would definitely never set a story in a such a unique modern day location such as New York City. You would need to live there for a certain amount of time to understand it or the millions who live or have lived there will be all over you. I grew up an hour from NYC and have visited plenty of times but still don't know a thing about the city in reality. There is more leeway in less unique locations such as a suburb in Virginia. I've never lived in Virginia but I bet their suburbs are pretty damn similar to every other state.
     
  6. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Yes, exactly - this is what I was trying to say. It's been bugging me for years, when authors do this.

    Badlands seems like a safe bet since nobody could live there. The only people who know it inside out might be the rangers who manage it, I guess.

    Just wanted to comment on it, since the "Badlands", Moonlands etc are some of my favourite things about the USA (as opposed to US foreign policy...) Wouldn't mind checking out your book - extremely cool setting anyway.
     
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  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it depends how important your setting is to your story. Some books are practically travelogues, and, no, it wouldn't make sense to write in that style without intimate personal knowledge of the place. But other books don't focus nearly as much on the surroundings, and I don't think it's hard for a writer to get enough information to fake it for those.
     
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  8. HistoricalScience
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    HistoricalScience Active Member

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    Thanks! I think it's a great setting too but it's only for one chapter (out of 22). The main character is only "passing through" but still wanted the detail and accuracy.
     
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  9. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    If I may give a personal example, I once wrote a story set on an island in the Pacific Ocean because that was the setting that made the most sense for the plot and themes. I know that someone living on a Pacific island could write a much better story than me, and I encourage them to do so! But no one else was writing the story I wrote, and without a Pacific setting, it wouldn't have been written at all. It came down to my feeling that it was better for the story to exist than to not exist.
     
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  10. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Good point. If you don't want to set it in a place you have personal experience of, then either choose a generic place, or make up a place.

    Otherwise if you set the plot in modern-day London where >8 mil people live, and you don't actually know modern London from significant personal experience, then the quality of the story will suffer. Londoners will give bad reviews and write snidy comments.

    Russia is another victim of horrible generalisations both about setting and culture. I just fume when I read the nonsense descriptions of life in Russia, either now or in the past. The author don't bother to read up on Russian names (a bit different structure). Or creates a "Russian" character who says and does things no Russian would ever say/do. West Europeans are almost as guilty of this as Americans really.

    I'm not going to complain about something set in the future, distant past or a country or culture I don't know - but I've noticed this fault so many times in connection with the few areas that I do know, and it's very infuriating + totally ruins the enjoyment of the book.
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2016
  11. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know about that. My first novel is set in London, in the same borough where I work. But I could change London to Manchester, or Liverpool, or probably any metropolitan city and it would work. I don't linger on setting descriptions (or any descriptions, really) so there's not much people can pick holes in.

    It comes down to how much you talk about the setting in your book. If you just need a vague picture for the reader - this is a city in England, this is an island in the Pacific, this is a suburb in the US - then I think you can get away with it. If you're going to describe places or buildings in detail, you should either give your place a false name ('Newtown') or set it somewhere you know very well and be accurate.
     
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  12. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    I think it was very sensible to set your first novel in a borough that you know. Or it could be somewhere you studied, where your grandparents live, a summer residence etc. Just making things so much easier for yourself, and escaping the risk of locals complaining.

    Of course, depending on the type of novel it might not matter -- for example, the important thing is that it is a major city, or a village or something else....The details don't matter, because the book is only about personal dynamics.

    (But for London, it's a bit of a law unto itself in the UK though, isn't it? So I think that there would actually be a bit of a different feel depending on whether the book was set in Manchester or London.)
     
  13. LinnyV
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    LinnyV Contributing Member

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    Akadia I've never been fond of the belief that you should stick with what you know or where you've been or what you've experienced when writing. Nothing wrong with challenging your imagination and if an author fails to capture the core essence of a place then that's just a case of poor writing/research. And if anything, it's a rant of mine when I have people tell me that I should stick with what I know.

    I write to engage my creativity and I don't see why I should put boundaries where there doesn't need to be. There may be some readers that nit pick everything or a minor detail will throw them out of a story while another didn't care or noticed. Oh well, you can't please everyone.

    What you are complaining about is just poor execution in my opinion and has nothing to do with whether someone knows a locale or not. And it's not even location based. Nothing pulls me out of a 19 century historical romance more than a character who sounds like she's from 2016! You've answered your own question in that one of the biggest mistake is inadequate research, so what you are really ranting about is lazy or not so talented authors and nothing to do with if they went to Paris or not. I've been to Paris a couple of times in my life, I cannot remember a thing about it but if I need to write about Paris, I'm going to try. So sue me for getting it all wrong because you may know better. :p
     
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  14. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Well, I can't argue with anything you are saying.
    Another problem is if somebody lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere with no real possibility of travelling. It wouldn't be for me to say they can't write about some other location.

    And yes, the 21st century feminist heroines and politically correct heroes from the 19th century are so silly! Some authors just take a bunch of 21st century people, putting on 19th century costumes and getting on with a story that would have been completely unthinkable in those days. I'm no history buff, so if even I can spot the problems, then the author really missed the mark.


    Maybe it's like you said, and it all comes down to research and genuine talent. After all, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen apparently hardly moved outside their villages unless I'm mistaken...

    And mind you, I'm not talking as somebody who can do a better job myself, just purely venting my reflections as a reader!
     
  15. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most of my books are set places I don't know well.

    The one time I've been criticized for getting a place "wrong", it was about a city I'd lived in for ten years, while I was writing about a place I'd actually visited (that the critic insisted couldn't exist).
     
  16. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's a Peter James novel where he spends an entire chapter walking his character from street A to street B in infinite, tedious detail. It's an info-dump of a travelogue of Brighton. And why? Oh, yes, it's 5k words closer to his word-count!

    I think that sort of thing is more of a problem than badly-described/-researched stuff. Too often it's because the author wants to share with the reader how much research he has done. What you really want is what Len Deighton was a master of, distilling a town/city into a minimal description that gets the character across in as few words as possible, rather than something that reads like an extract from Wiki.
     
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  17. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Only if I was describing it in detail. Every city has shopping centres with a train station nearby, a park with a bench in it, quiet back streets and busy commuter streets. The only chapter that might get me in trouble is where a character is looking over a marina (I was picturing Limehouse Marina) as I guess not every city has one of those. But I could easily swap it for lake or canal without affecting my story.
     
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  18. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Yes, and such a description doesn't add a lot if it's just what anyone can observe if they are walking on that street. If the fact that this is taking place in Brighton is important to the story, then you would expect something more. Like what kind of area is it, what type of people live there? What's the area known for and ideally tie it all in with the plot. What does the various houses he passes remind him off etc.

    I've read many books where the author actually says in the preface ,that they visited such and such place on a guided tour in 1995, and you just have think "clearly that wasn't enough". The plot then reads something like "Mary sighed as she passed the sandstone St Jerome church which was built by a local noblemen in 1750 and still has the highest spire in..." (See Lonely Planet France, p. 100!!)
    In such a case you can tell that the author doesn't really know the place, even if you've never set foot there.

    On the other hand, some authors go overboard, and you have to read a small encyclopedia entry on the place before the story picks up again.
    particularly true for modern political thrillers etc.
     
  19. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends on the writer, I suppose. Dean Koontz admitted years ago that he rarely, if ever, left his home state of California. And yet, people like scenes he sets in other places.

    I'm the only person in my family who isn't a born-again Christian and I can tell you none of my relatives care how accurate the reading material is as long as the themes are all aimed at reinforcing faith. (They won't say that's why, but that's what it amounts to.)

    I, on the other hand, am quite picky about accuracy when it's something I know about. Take computers, for instance. Most writers can't portray a hacker, a computer science major or even a nerd using a computer without giving themselves away as totally uninformed.

    So, I take your point.
     
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  20. arkadia
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    arkadia Member

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    Agree with all your points. Books that are both faith-promoting and well-written are rare gems indeed. At Goodreads, some Christian books are praised to the skies by believing readers. Yet when you read them it's a real struggle to stick with it. Sometimes I've just put down the book when the author lets a character go on a political rant that I really disagree with, or there is a completely uninformed and biased portrayal of some other faith. This genre could really do with some fresh blood.

    As for techies in books; yup, I'm a techie myself and it's frustrating, although I rarely read books with programmers, unless it's a sci-fi. In a sci-fi of course, it's the technology of the future, so nothing I can criticise.

    But in films! Great looking girl spends 2 minutes typing a bit on her keyboard and voila, she's hacked the Pentagon or a leading bank. One minute later she's found documents that reveal everything. This is conveniently copied over to a memory stick.. But oh no! Five minutes later, police magically tracked them down and are closing in on the venue. This time is spent guessing somebody's password which the hero can do within 3 tries. Systems that are bound to be non-networked are hacked anyway...and cross-referenced by the hero in about 5 minutes. Right.
    Reality: Anti-social geek guy spends months trying to find a system with some weakness and devising a way of getting in. Once in, it takes considerable effort to locate anything worthwhile. And if he's in, it will take weeks at best to track him down if he hasn't covered his tracks.
     
  21. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree that it's so much easier to write things that one is deeply familiar with - but in some cases that's not possible. I'm writing a political drama with a pretty global scale. I've set as much of it as I can in Washington, DC, because I live there and know the place at a street-by-street level. However, the nature of the story means that the characters move globally, and that means I have to touch down in unfamiliar settings. Should I then stop writing anything but small-scale DC based stories? Of course not. I just need to do the research I can an write a good story.
     
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2016
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  22. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    I have never been to space, but how many people have? I use a global map of Mars to depict the surface at points. Again never been to Mars. I guess Sci-Fi gets a bit of a pass on the topic. I think the best way to write an unfamiliar place is to do a ton of research on the area and culture, unless it is centered around where your from or familiar with. Just a few thoughts. :D
     
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  23. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    ROFLMAO--How many American Christians actually care one iota about how Palestinians are portrayed? You are reading an American book targeted at a Christian audience, who will not even listen to a Palestinian if the person happens ask the time of day let alone research their culture. Those guys are evil, right? Inhuman jihadist, right? Deserve to die, right?

    If you want a realistic view of anyone who isn't Christian, you shouldn't be reading Christian fiction; they advertise the bias right in the genera title.
     
  24. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    With respect - there is well constructed religious fiction and badly constructed religious fiction - like anything else - and I've read both.

    There are plenty of Christian titles that give thought to portraying non-Christian characters sympathetically. If they don't, they actually end up with a bad story - especially if it's an actual conversion narrative in which case the whole thing falls apart if there's not a real reason for resistance.

    Personally I don't read a lot of Christian fiction, but I did when I was younger - and there were plenty of characters who got a nuanced treatment despite being on the wrong side of the theological narrative. Actually, three of the most haunting and morally complex portrayals I remember come from Christian fiction. One being the character of Hattie Durham in the Left Behind series - who was the Antichrist's mistress in a rapture narrative but was never played off as a bad person and ended up in a deeply tragic and self-sacrificial situation at the end of her plotline even though it had been made blisteringly clear based on the series' internal theology that she was literally going straight to hell. The second, also from the Left Behind series, was the portrayal of their actual Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, who despite being Satan's representative on Earth was not without his own humanity and sympathetic moments...that's actually what made him disturbing. The other was from Frank Perretti's This Present Darkness, which was a huge seller in the 90s and had a lot of horror elements - it portrayed a spiritual war overlayed on top of human action, and there were a LOT of sequences where you were actually in the POV of sympathetic DEMONS.

    All of which is not to encourage you to read those books, and they are not without their own problems - I could rag on their theology easily - but it would be a fallacy to assert that all religious fiction is bad or without nuance. Seeing as the two works I cited above were among the biggest books EVER in that genre, one could even make the case that nuanced portrayal of non-Christians is actually what MAKES a best-seller in that market.
     
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  25. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Another thought just occurred to me...

    While writing Huckberry Finn, Sam Clements found the story wasn't gripping him and so stopped for quite a while (years, if memory serves). It wasn't until he reset the story from the Ohio River to the Mississippi that it got rolling again.

    He worked on the Old Miss, so he was familiar with it.
     
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