1. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Senior Member Contributor

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    writing about a place you've never been to?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Tesoro, Feb 19, 2012.

    This question came to me while reading the thread about London in the setting development section.
    Is it pointless to write about a place you never been to, or is it like writing about anything else you don't know? (you'll find out)
    Can you set a story in a city/country you have never been to or is it going to fail inevitably?
    Can research and googling be enough, maybe if you're the kind of writer that doesn't write a whole lot of description of the setting? Not everyone of us can go visit the place we want to write about, especially if it's on another continent, and even if we could, there's always someone that will claim you have to live there to know it. :confused::confused:
    Are we limited to write about our own hometowns then, or places where we have actually been living for at least a couple of years?
    Somehow that sounds sooo boring to me. :(

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  2. Gonissa
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    Gonissa New Member

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    I think as long as we have reliable information and make sure we're not just writing our own personal notions of that area (Did You Hear About the Morgans stank for that very reason), then it should be okay.

    Actually, when you say your hometown is that boring it makes me intrigued. Sometimes things we find "boring" are things readers want to know about. People on TV seem to think the viewing audience only wants dark whatnot, but quite frankly, I'd watch more TV if it were happier and fun.
  3. Jowettc
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    Jowettc New Member

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    If you are setting a story in a real world place - then yes in my opinion*. You should have at least been there. There are so many nuances to a place that only become relevant if you have spent time there, so many changes during the seasons and so on.

    In a fictional city - go wild.

    If you write a story about the city I live in, claiming its accurate, and you get it wildly wrong...well

    * - I'd love to be proven wrong and that someone could actually do it...but I doubt its a winner.
  4. Rapscallion
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    Rapscallion Member

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    I think it would depend on how descriptive you need to be about the place in your story. I would imagine you could get by researching and googling in most cases. Just don't write something like:

    It's a warm and sunny day in Glasgow. Tomorrow will be Christmas day.
  5. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese New Member

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    Hi Tesoro,

    By what I've seen and read so far (in this forum), you really do have to go and live somewhere to write about it accurately. Researching might help to some certain extent, but it never actually gives enough information to write accurately.
  6. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Member

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    I've wondered about that too. Thus far, I've only written about places I've been myself. However, if I wanted to write about another location I would probably start by watching travel videos about these places. Maybe talking to someone who has been or has lived there. Perhaps even hanging out at a local hangout of that nationality (e.g., Little Italy). That kind of thing.

    Did Tom Clancy take a ride on an advanced Russian nuclear submarine before writing Hunt for Red October?
  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Reviewer Contributor

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    It's been a while since I read it, but my recollection is that it wasn't so drenched with descriptions that he would have had to have done so. He probably modeled his descriptions on US subs of an older vintage, throwing in some variations here and there. That said, Clancy has written a lot of nonfiction on military hardware.

    You can capture physical descriptions, especially with Google Earth and similar products. What you can't get that way is what Algy Herries called "the smell of the place". So, you're writing should proceed with that in mind. You can use settings you've never visited, but then you can't rely on them to add much flavor to your story.
  8. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    I think even if you don't have errors in your descriptions, it's likely to be a bit two-dimensional. It's the little observations of life there that bring a place to life. If you attempt to be a bit more creative, you'll have people who have been there laughing, 'He got a black cab in Canterbury?' or something. It's the same difficulty as writing about a historical period--you have to do a hell of a lot of research. Actually, even then you'll get some history buff pointing out that kitchen stoves didn't burn coal until the 19th century, or whatever.

    I think most writers at least visit an area for research--they don't have to actually live there all their lives.
  9. psychotick
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    psychotick Member

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    Hi,

    I think google is your friend (though apparently they may still be spying on us - but that's another matter). If you don't need a detailed descriptive piece about the city, you should be able to find enough on line to get a feel for the place. If on the other hand you want to get down to the nitty gritty about life in a strange city, I'd suggest making it up. But that doesn't mean you can't take bits of other places and use them as a model. Midsomer (Midsomer murders) for example doesn't exist and neither does Market Shipborough (Kingdom) or St Mary Mead (Miss Marple), but all are based on real British towns and regions.

    Cheers, Greg.
  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Member Supporter Contributor

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    You'd probably be able to get away with it if you're writing about places that very few of your readers would ever have been to, either. Pitcairn Island, for example, or Antarctica.

    But I doubt I would ever write about a real place that I didn't know well. I've never been to London, so I just wouldn't write about it. I'd write about places I know. Either that, or I'd invent fictional towns and cities. That would free me from having to be geographically, demographically, and historically accurate. This, by the way, is one reason I enjoy writing alternative-history fiction - I can write about anyplace I want without having to be too accurate.

    When you think about it, you realize that most great writers have avoided writing about places they didn't know. Hemingway wrote famously about Paris and Spain and Africa and the Gulf Stream, but he'd been in all those places and lived in most. Steinbeck wrote a ton about the Salinas Valley area in California where he grew up. Faulkner set nearly all of his work in Mississippi, where he grew up and lived almost all his life. Dickens wrote about London. So did Conan Doyle. Tolstoy did not write about San Francisco; James Joyce did not write about Brazil.

    Great drama, great stories, can come from anywhere. Not to be too highfalutin and literary, but the truth of the human condition exists wherever humans are. Embrace your hometown. Embrace your home country. You'll inspire people from all over the world to want to visit it. I first visited California in part because I loved Steinbeck. I still want to visit Spain because I'm a Hemingway fan. Don't despise your roots. There's a motherlode of material for fiction there.
  11. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I'll have to be a voice of dissent here. Unless you're writing nonfiction, there's no reason you have to physically visit locations. My gosh, how limiting that would be! That's just another version of "write what you know" in its most literal sense. How much research one has to do will depend on how detailed your descriptions - but frankly, if there are questions there are innumerable resources for the answers, and ample means of 'testing' what you've written (thanks again to the internet and the people on it).
  12. jazzabel
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    jazzabel I do not like snoopy reporter Supporter Contributor

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    The thing is, there is so much more to places than just the shops or just the people or just the laws or just the tv programmes etc. In my experience, it is very difficult to get the "flavour" for a place unless you've been there at least once. But more than just seeing the place, absorbing the culture is more important.

    Obviously depends on the story. Some stories can be told in a way that any city would do, it is not important which one because the actual milieu is not what it's about. Or it's a futuristic city, so it is conceivable that it would change ie. there's a lot more room for imagination. Then, choose the area, research on Google Earth and the internet, and using a generic knowledge of life in a city, you can write about any place. But usually, at least a strong hint of the culture can be felt, and if say an American is writing about the UK, about British characters, but all from an American point of view, it will read more like it is set in the US than the UK, never mind the research.
  13. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do you have to be a scientist to write about one? Do you have to be a detective? Lived in a Victorian mansion? Driven a Formula 1 car? Killed someone?

    You don't have to have lived something to write about it.
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  14. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Awaiting a good story in the local pub... Contributor

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    I get away with it by making up a city, so all the details are my own to control and I won't piss anyone off by getting a street name or location wrong.

    However, the culture would be different. As I've never been outside the US, I can only write about Americans in American cities. If I wanted to write about people from the UK, I would have to spend much time in the UK, traveling to various corners of the UK, talking to the people, etc. Of course, there is a catch; there is a chance that even after intense research, I may not be able to truely capture the culture of the UK. The best I'd be able to do is write about Anglo-Americans living in the UK, as some aspects of my culture would be imprinted on my writing, naturally. I may never be able to accurately write a 100% British character that's, in no, way connected to America at all, see what I'm saying?

    But do you have to write only about your hometown? Not at all! That's what research is for! If I wanted to write a Western set in 1880s Arizona, or a coming-of-age set in 1940s Georgia, I'd just go to the library and research what life was like back then.

    Of course, your hometown may be interesting in itself! Sure it's boring to you, as you've lived there your whole life, but to someone who's never been there, it's something new, new sights, etc. It gives them a chance to see a city far away without personally having to travel there.
  15. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Senior Member Contributor

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    I'm with shadowwalker on this one. Depending upon how much description you need, varying degrees of research can take you a long way. You can throw in references to streets and businesses and buildings without much problem. If you are in need of more detailed descriptions, more detailed research is in order.

    Bear in mind, if you are writing a novel set in Victorian England, you obviously could not have been there. There is, however, an abundance of material written about the period and the people, etc. to give you an intense concept of the time, the place, and the people which will, in turn, allow you to write a reasonably accurate historical novel. Likewise, copious research on various places in current time will give you much of the flavor of the place and time. Again, much depends upon just how much accuracy is required for the novel but, how boring it would be if we could only write about those places we have been and seen! While some of us have many locales from which to choose, other truly fine writers might be stuck writing only about Bemidji, Minnesota or Monkeys Eyebrow, Kentucky! Wow! How exciting! ... How incredibly limiting.
  16. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Senior Member Contributor

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    Thank you everyone, it's been interesting to follow your opinions. The problem with writing about my own town (or even country) is that it feels so limiting that I probably would get bored myself while writing it. Even as a writer I wanna travel, want to see new places and meet different people. Most of the stories I come up with couldn't even take place here because such people or such circumstances are unlikely to be found where I live. I guess my writing and my story ideas are too influenced by all the american and english novels I've been reading. I understand it could be a problem, of course, but I hope it's not that big of an issue that my stories will never be published because of that. (or badly reviewed.) I find it interesting that there are different opinions on this subject.
  17. jazzabel
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    jazzabel I do not like snoopy reporter Supporter Contributor

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    I agree, one doesn't "have to" do anything. But from personal experience, I think that certain types of stories, not all stories, not always, just in certain situations, when set in a place that writer has little idea about, the stories suffer for it. And it's not about "getting it right" but knowing a "flavour" of a place. An American tourist who came to London for a week will be pretty much well equipped to write a thriller set in London.
    Even then, nobody has to do anything, readers will decide whether they are satisfied with the story or not, but personally, I don't feel comfortable "faking it" completely. That's all, just my opinion, not the universal truth.

    By the way, as a scientist I'll tell you that anyone who isn't one, and tries to write about one, or chooses a scientific setting, gets it terribly wrong to the point that I feel it's cringeworthy. For example medical shows. Vast majority are so inane and wrong, I can't bear to watch them.
    I usually only read medical thrillers written by doctors. Even Patricia Cornwall, whose early works I love, worked at the ME's Office for years, which is why she managed to learn enough about her chosen topics of forensic pathology and detective work.

    I am not saying one has to be of the profession they want to write about, but just researching things on the internet is sometimes not enough, if that's going to be a major component of the story.
  18. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    The doctors in my family say the same! Although my cousin's a nurse and says Casualty isn't bad. This is why you'll often see a string of advisers listed after a film or TV series in a medical, police or military setting, or historical advisers if it's a period drama (not that Downton Abbey troubles about too much authenticity when it comes to the manners and mores of the time...).
  19. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Awaiting a good story in the local pub... Contributor

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    My fellow history buffs are the same way about Hollywood movies set in historical periods. They spend most of their time watching it going, "That's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong..." I wonder why they even bother to go. I don't.
  20. madhoca
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    madhoca Senior Member Contributor

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    Well, unless it's pure escapism or done really well I often don't like historical dramas much (some, e.g. Remains of the Day and The Go-Between were good). Nor can I stand Downton (so much intrusive modern social comment, as if they are apologising all the time), but Upstairs, Downstairs had amazing writers and had an authentic feel to it, since the director could remember his parents lifestyle in the 1900s-1920s.
  21. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    My brother, an attorney, says the same thing about legal/police shows. But that doesn't stop him from enjoying mysteries or crime novels written by non-lawyers or non-police. It all depends on how the research is done. And obviously, there's 'creative license' - which should only be taken, IMO, with minor details but is expected. After all, we are writing fiction.
  22. jazzabel
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    jazzabel I do not like snoopy reporter Supporter Contributor

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    hehe, yes, I have a lawyer friend and he hates it, especially Law and Order, the legal side of things :D
    I think the police/detective shows and books have a life of their own in a way. It is such a popular genre that we are saturated with information about it. Although, a lot of wrong info is getting transferred from show to show, but writers tend to either have experience themselves or at least the occasional opportunity to hang around with cops. Also, all the Agatha Christie and AC Doyle novels are set in the past, before the detective work and police procedure were even established fully, so there was a lot of artistic licence which kind of persists to this day.
    I don't know, cop thrillers somehow manage to get away with it especially if it's heavily focused on deduction, but even then, some people are better than others at providing truly interesting motives and characterisation. But you are right, it's all in the research :)
  23. Show
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    I always make up the "locations" in my stories, but base them on places I've been to.
  24. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I always try have my setting in Britain but usually different cities or different parts of the city I live in. I never just mention what city is it but I give clues here and there, so I don't need to be very accurate.
    Unless your setting is important to the plot, then I think your better off not fully mentioning the town. The descriptions and clues can allow the reader to decided what town it, right ;D
  25. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think we should all keep in mind that (pace James Michener) stories are about people, not places, so maybe we shouldn't obsess too much about where they're set. Sure, if there's some specific geographical feature that affects the plot, then setting is important (if you're writing a story about mountaineers dying of oxygen starvation because they've climbed too high, you can't set it in Kansas), but that isn't usually true.
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