Location, Location! – Writing about ‘Place’ in Fiction

Apologies for not blogging for ages, but this isn’t due to procrastination, I promise. Well, only a little bit…

Where will your next novel be set?

Where will your next novel be set?

When eight o’clock came around, Carl decided it was time to head off to school. He couldn’t be late. It was his first day in town, and he had to make a good impression.

He grabbed his surfboard and waved goodbye to his uncle Garry in the corner. If he wanted to make the surfing team, he couldn’t be late.

When he slammed the door, Carl whistled out for Benji, uncle Garry’s pet kangaroo.

Carl wouldn’t be late for school today. Benji would make sure of it.

Today (or tonight for me), I’ll be talking about writing realistically, and writing what you know.

Because seriously, who rides kangaroos to school? Nobody. And furthermore, unless you’re living in Hawaii, for example, surfing will not be your main sport.

There are so many novels and short stories out there where you can tell the location hasn’t been researched properly… or at all.

To use an example of the novel everyone loves to hate, you can tell that E.L James (author of Fifty Shades of Grey) probably hasn’t lived in Washington in the United States before. It has a distinctly British feel.

But, if you’re really want to write about a place, you can just wing it, right?

Go on the internet to research the place, email a few people about their experiences. Well, your aunt Paula has been to New York twice and, despite you living in Austria, you think you’ll be able to write about living in New York perfectly. Never mind that aunt Paula was only in New York for two weeks altogether, and that she was viewing it through the eyes of a tourist.

Don't consult the aunt Paula-types, lest you want to insult your readers.

Don’t consult the aunt Paula-types, lest you want to insult your readers.

With only research under your belt, you could probably write about the place realistically enough. But there’d be something missing. People from that place would know.

When Jeff Lindsay writes about Miami in his Dexter Morgan series, it does sound as if he’s been to all the places Dexter has been. You can tell he lives there. I’ve never been to Miami before, so correct me if I’m wrong. But Jeff Lindsay actually does live in Miami, so I’m assuming he’s right.

This doesn’t just work for places. It’s the same for experiences, but to a lesser extent.

Most writers have written about things that have never happened to them. Ever been in a zombie apocalypse or taken hostage by extremist terrorists? 99% of people haven’t experienced these things, the writers included.

They’re usually a metaphor for something else, but that’s a pretty generalised thing for me to say.

These writers don’t just write about zombie apocalypses or terrorist plots without some sort of research.

Much like how people research places they’ve never been to, you have to research experiences.

Want to write about a sexually abusive father as he sends his children mad? Do it. But just make sure you’ve done research, so it doesn’t just sound like a clichéd Hollywood movie.

And consulting Wikipedia really doesn’t count on its own. Go on a range of sites, maybe even talk to someone who’s been physically abused.

If you’re writing about something that is extremely unlikely to happen, like a zombie apocalypse, don’t despair. Read other books about it!

As the popular saying goes; Good writers read.

So get reading!

So get reading!

Now I’m done with my rambling, here’s a basic summary of what I’ve said:

  1. Go to the place you’re writing about. Even if you’ve lived there before, go again.
  2. If you can’t go to the place, I’ve got three words for you: research, research, research. It won’t have the same zing as number 1, but at least you’ve put some effort in.
  3. Same as 2, but with experiences. Writing about the emotional effects of a young woman training to be a teacher in Zambia? Hasn’t happened to you? Interview someone who’s done something similar. Don’t just Wikipedia-search it.
  4. And finally, good writers read. Read similar books to yours. Think of how you can make yours more original than theirs and, in turn, more interesting.

And, finally, here’s the Carl-piece written with research in hand.

When eight thirty came around, Carl decided it was time to head off to school. He couldn’t be late. It was his first day in town, and he had to make a good impression.

He grabbed his brand new Sherrin and waved goodbye to his uncle Garry in the corner. If he wanted to make ruck in the footy team, he couldn’t be late.

When he slammed the door, Carl grabbed his skateboard from the shed. It was at least ten years old, but it would get him to school in time.

Carl like football... and maths. Is he insane?

Carl likes football… and maths. Is he insane?

Carl wouldn’t be late for school today.

See you next time!

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