1. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Writing about places you don't know?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Jud, May 29, 2012.

    I've decided on a rough path for my novel, path being the operative word here as it's going to be about an unemployed man, tired of his home life and living off benefits, who sells up his possessions and sets off an a kind of pilgrimage, visiting various different places and (hopefully) interesting characters.

    I don't think I have the confidence to take him outside of my own country (England), but even with the familiarity of my own country - its customs and ways, accents, etc, I still have concerns about writing authentically when it comes to places I've never been.

    Can this be done with research alone? Would I be able to have my character visit these various places and describe them and its landmarks in such a way that someone from that area wouldn't be able to tell I'd never actually been there?

    When I read novel written by an American, and set in his own country, I pay no mind when he says, "I found a room on Temple Street in the Filipino district."

    I just assume and take it for said that this area is indeed a Filipino area and that there is a street named Temple. But is this case? Could maybe, he have simply made up the street name?

    Or when the author says, "Main Street, East 5th, Bunker Hill. Shitholes of America"

    To an Englishman such as myself this means nothing, but does it to natives of that area? Is there a 'Main Street' an 'East 5th', a 'Bunker Hill'? And are they the 'Shitholes of America'?

    I suppose what I'm asking here is how accurate does one have to be when describing real towns and cities, and if you've never been to those place can it be pulled off by research alone?
     
  2. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    Before you do this, ask yourself: Does the setting need to be specified? Does it add to story?
    Most of the time, not really. So it's best not even specify it. You can imply it's in a certain country like for example: The mention of Oysters implies it's in London xD but I think mentioning street names is a bit too far unless it adds to the story.

    f yes, then researching is kind of hard. You'll probably have to look at a variety of sources (Not just wikipedia!) and probably talk to people who actually live there too. Even then, the setting can look forced and constricted, since you're not confident. Some writers pull it off, but I think they're be able to because the setting isn't the main thing in the story. So they can slide past certain details and the reader won't even notice. Sadly, not everyone can just go to the setting they've placed their story in. That would be a big help.

    I hope that helped :3
     
  3. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Thanks, Youniquee.

    I think it's pretty obvious to many that I'm taking my inspiration from Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which despite knowing what it's roughly about, I haven't actually read. This might sound stupid and many of you are probably wondering how the hell I can take inspiration from something I haven't read, but I know enough about it to know I like the theme. The fact that I haven't read it is also a good thing because it means it can't possibly influence the direction mine takes.

    Anyway, I'm not planning on being overly obsessive about the places, but in that the story is going to be about him traveling the country, I don't see how I can possibly avoid mentioning which towns and cities he stops off at along his way. Once I've mentioned the place, I then have to be careful about places and landmarks.
     
  4. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    maybe you could base the details of the places he goes to on the people he meets and different cultures instead of plain scenery? Of course, some of them you will have to include anyway, but if the focus is on acquaintances and experiences and the changes he goes through during the process it's not that important to have these long, detailed descriptions of the surroundings. If you could find a few telling details of the place I think that might be enough. Otherwise you will probably have to do extensive research before writing as well as talking to people who's been to these places like youniquee said.
    As for myself I have set my two stories in a different country than my own, and one that I have never even been to for that matter. We'll see how far research can take me. :)
     
  5. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    I'm actually having this same issue. Yeah, it's about my own country, but America is a big place and Seattle is pretty far removed from central Missouri.
    I used to worry that the old adage, "Write what you know" was set in stone, but I've come to learn it's more accurate to say "Know what you write." That's why I've posted messages here and on other forums looking for info about Seattle. (BTW, you guys are the most helpful.) I had one person say I shouldn't write about a place unless I've been there, but Nancy (Fi-Nancy, that is) prevents this.
    I agree with Youniquee--don't go into specifics unless you need to. (Mine, being a mystery, will rely fairly heavily on the geography of the city.) do a bit of looking and find the general area you want your character to explore. Books and TV will provide plenty of knowledge on American idioms, if that's an issue--just be sure to get your regionalisms right. (Remember Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins? Getting the American accents/slang/speech patterns wrong can be just as disastrous.) If you need specifics, about a street or landmark or whatever, I suggest you ask a person. I've found the people on this forum to be really willing to lend a hand to fellow writers, and getting info from the horse's mouth is a lot better than relying solely on travel books and internet research. (After all, a city's Chamber of Commerce isn't going to tell you which streets to avoid after dark, right?)
     
  6. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Thanks for all the help, folks.

    I suppose there's always google 'street view' :)
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There's much more to a location than what you can see through a camera lens. There are the smells and sounds. There may be the smell of the sea for a coastal town, there could be dust and grit you feel when your teeth touch. The air can be humid or arid. You might get the smell of scrub pines from the hillsides, or the fragrances of eucalyptus and almond trees. Or the smell of landfills and uncollected dumpsters. Maybe you hear the horns of impatient drivers, or the rumble of planes passing low overhead from a nearby airport. Maybe you hear stereos blasting from apartment windows, or the grind and skip of skateboards on rough sidewalks.

    Your camera view doesn't tell you anything about how passers by behave. Do they silently ignore you? Do they smile and say "Hi" in passing? Or maybe "Watchoo looking at?" Or like NYC, do they pass so close they brush against you without any sign they notice you?

    Street view can give you a rough sense of how a place looks, but there is no substitute for a visit, especially if you are to give the place the "writer's touch", that special way of conveying the soul of a location.
     
  8. Skodt
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    Skodt Member

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    ^ I agree each place has a certain feel. More so than a certain look. Seeing a place and being at that place are much different/ The smells, the tastes, the people, the feelings. It's something easier to convey if you have it in your knowledge banks.
     
  9. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is what research is for. I'm actually researching those very details for my novel, and you can find a lot of info about that on the internet, both about the smells of a place and for sounds you can check out videos or similar. I have checked the tinyest details to find out even what kinds of birds you can find there, and what kind of plants/flowers that grow in the area. Then you add your own imagination and a little creativity. But maybe it's just me being very thorough in my research? :)
     
  10. P R Crawford
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    P R Crawford Member

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    Unfortunately google doesn't drive down the back alleys or up the pedestrian stairways.... :D

    I agree with Cogito, there's a lot more to a place than meets the eye. I live near a port. Talk about smells (not all bad)!

    Fortunately, England is a relatively small country - maybe you can make day trips to see different places. Or better yet, perhaps your main character can travel around just in your own region. You'll already have a good handle on the regional accent (though there will be variations you'll want to pick up on as your character moves around). It could become THE South Suffolk novel (or wherever it is you're based).

    Truly, a pilgrimage story doesn't have to go halfway around the world to be effective (e.g. Joyce's Ulysses - all happens on one day in downtown Dublin....). The interesting aspect of a pilgrimage is what happens on the inside - otherwise it's just another travel story.
     
  11. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Quite. I accept that there's no real substitute for having visited 'that' place, but on reflection and despite me having asked the question, I'm also inclined to agree with Tesoro. I have neither the inclination nor means to start doing this journey for real. As you say, England is relatively small country and although time consuming with regards to the research needed, I'm sure I can paint these places accurately enough.
     
  12. Erato
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    Erato Contributing Member

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    If it were me, given that rough outline, I would set it in America (being more familiar with states etc) and make up the specific towns. But if you want to be totally accurate to actual locations, there's nothing wrong with that - you just have to do a lot of research. Another thing that might help is talking to people from the area you're using in the story. They can probably tell you, if you question them at length, about a back stairway behind the museum of anthropology, or a shady location which purports to be no more than a hookah lounge, and so on. Obviously the best thing is to go on the pilgrimage yourself and write as you go, or take careful notes on your route, but that would take... a while... and not be as convenient as peering around corners with Google Street View on your computer and all the rest of it.
     
  13. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you really need to describe a town in depth, because that adds to the character's development, could you just not name the town? You could base the location on an actual place and in your mind you are having everything take place in Town X. Describe the geography or transportation system or style of houses or whatever, but don't actually say "Town X." Either make up a name or just say "A town near City Y that was on a beautiful stretch of coastline" or whatever. That way, people who actually live in Town X can't quibble with any of the details that you might not get right, because you've never specified that you are actually talking about Town X. People from that area would probably think "That sounds a lot like Town X," or "I bet this is taking place in Town X," but they can't say, "this is not believable -- there hasn't been a bus stop at that intersection for years!" or "No one would drive on that road if they were going there at that time. They'd take this road," etc.
     
  14. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Thanks to all, for the help offered since my last post. It's all great advice and is being taken on board.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    there's no one-size-fits-all answer... it's all up to you and how much research you do... plus, how well you write...
     
  16. TheStaters
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    TheStaters New Member

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    You can never research too much! I'm writing a story right now and one of the main protagonists is an Iranian woman- I've spent hours constructing in my head where she's from in Tehran, looking at maps, looking for schools, looking for parks, markets, and anything else interesting. I feel that I've learned a lot about the current setting, and the thing is, I probably won't ever use half of this in the story. I agree with Youniquee that it doesn't really matter the specifics and you probably won't sound like a local, but I think that research and immersing yourself over the internet in a new culture can only deepen your writing! :)
     
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  17. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've set stories in places I've never been - there is no way a writer can (or needs to) visit every place they want/need to place their writing. The internet is wonderful for not only looking things up but for contacting people to gain/verify information.
     
  18. BallerGamer
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    BallerGamer Active Member

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    I'm a person that lived in Canada, Windsor Ontario to be exact. It was right across Detroit, rated one of the worst cities in America, and lots of the influence was brought over where I lived. Very ghetto place. Toronto is a 4 hour drive and my family there also live in a ghetto area, but it's a completely different "kind" of ghetto. Currently I reside in Southern California, and although I live in a safe neighborhood, I'm associated with gang bangers and been to their hood, and again it's a completely different kind of ghetto.

    When I think about it, little separates all these different ghettos. Clothing is slightly different, the ebonics and slang that is used, behavioral patterns, but those slight differences makes it seem like they're completely different worlds and I wouldn't have felt the difference if I was told it.

    Even outside the ghettos the rich and middle working areas are so different across America. I never believed in how different the east and west coast was, I figured the differences were minimal, but you wouldn't think that New York and Los Angeles were in the same country.

    I hear some stories of how writers refuse to write until they can get a plane trip to their desired location. They want to get a sense of the aroma of what they're writing.

    However like someone said before there is no be it all answer here. If you want to make your story feel the utmost authentic then I say you have to visit those places, but it's not particularly necessary for it to feel authentic right down to the very seeps and details of it. Purists may be angered with that but fortunately those are just the few of the lot.
     
  19. Samo
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    Samo Member

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    I once had a compulsion to write a short story about a road trip to the Highlands. Living in one of the home counties, I took a twelve-hour coach journey to spend six hours in Inverness. I then got the coach back. UK is accessible.

    There's nothing like experience.
     
  20. Cayo Costa
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    Cayo Costa New Member

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    I hope I don't come off as just contrary, but I want to log in here that I think you should read it. And I think I get the fear--once, after reading Nabokov, even though his work was a pleasant experience, my style was a little messed up for roughly a year. But in any circumstance I'd advise reading it, whatever it is. I think you'll gain more from knowing where your stories would differ than you will guessing at the unknown, hoping because it's not known that you won't stumble upon it too hard. Besides, I'm under the belief that even if you feel too subconsciously inclined to "copy" you'll never be able to get rid of the part of the writing that is you, nor gain what is the other author's, and so you will always differ there. And hell, if you believe in revision and aren't a raging alcoholic you already have two differences going for you, plus the change in setting which would be tremendously big. American spirit different that the respective zeitgeist of England. If that makes sense. But, again, I understand if you feel a need to disregard this.

    That being said, I almost always keep to where I am. My stories don't only stick to Florida, they stick to central Florida where I'm most comfortable--they've only occasionally sauntered southward. However, I have done one or two pieces centered elsewhere. Once, I wrote the Asbury Park area of New Jersey in 1969. I was not alive then nor have I ever been there--my dad's family had. I built that mostly off of interviews and I found that the most helpful. Personal accounts. It also helped that after it was finished I could have the experienced go through it for error.

    But if I had the opportunity (time and money) to do so, I would, if I were in your shoes, try to actually travel the country. Interviews can only go so far. Only you'll look at the world like you need to. To some extent, yes, specifics might not be vital to the actual story but I think (unless you're making your own places here) you should not discount them. They're not vital to you or your characters maybe, but they will be to some of your audience if any of your audience hails from these areas or have been there before. Seeing errors would take them out of the story immediately. In a purist sense the audience shouldn't matter in the writing process, but I disagree with the purist sense of it. A book is as much about how it's written as it is about how it's read.
     
  21. Debanjan Choudhuri
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    Debanjan Choudhuri New Member

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    I'm working on my first novel now and my story revolves around individuals from a small town in the States. Now I'm not from the States, so what I thought I'd do is actually not mention the name of the place or its whereabouts. I know that it might not be the case in your point but in my case, my story revolves around the individuals more than the actual town.
     
  22. Complex
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    Complex Senior Member

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    Not knowing about a place makes it pretty hard to describe it, having your characters live in another nation that you have never been to or do not live in is more then a minor challenge. Even if it revolves around the individuals (as it should), the individuals live in the town and should know a lot about it. When does school start? What is the major business of town? How is Joe's field coming along? Is there going to be a fair this year? Going to be another water ban in the summer because of a drought? What do the police cars look like; are they state or local?

    You characters will interact with other people and be apart of the town, the way in which the town functions is a pretty good indicator of its lifestyle. Nearby, the recession hit the already low-income families hard, drugs and gang activity picked up before long (was previously rough to start with) and they have cops permanent assigned to the area, yet major crimes keep occurring. Its the part of town where you don't go out after dark, lock down your home and buy a gun to defend yourself from home invasion or robbery. Its not 'happy sunshine' town that's for sure.
     
  23. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Usually, the story should revolve more around the characters than the town. But I agree that it is difficult to write about someplace you don't know. You don't indicate how much time you've spent in the U.S. so you may very well be familiar enough with it to write something believably set there. But your implication that simply not naming the town would solve the problem of not knowing enough about the culture and setting to convincingly write about it doesn't hold up. Just because the details don't fit a particular named town, doesn't mean that they don't have to have a certain authenticity.

    I read a story written by a British woman that was set entirely in the U.S., with American characters, some of whom had never been to the U.K. She had a lot of details right, as far as geographic relationships between cities and some of the weather, etc., but the characters kept using words and phrases that are not common to Americans, although they are to Brits. Despite the fact that the characters were American and had no particular connection to Britain, I kept "hearing" the characters (one in particular) talking in a British accent, which would make no sense. Throughout the book, I kept wondering why the author didn't just set the book in London. The only thing I could come up with was that she was really aiming for the U.S. market and thought that placing the story in the U.S. would help sales.

    I think it's better to set a story in a place you know well. As a reader, I actually prefer to learn about a location I don't know very well.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    An author friend who lives in the Boston area set one of her novels in New Orleans. It was an excellent excuse for taking a research trip there to get the flavor of the place (literally, as it involved the murder of a chef, and the local cuisine figured prominently), and she was also able to take a tax deduction for the trip.
     
  25. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that really had nothing to do with whether or not the author knew the place - it's that she didn't change from UK English to American English.
     

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