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Monday, 20 February 2012

Do you prefer to write about where you know?

Doing research on the internet and by reading books is useful, but it doesn't tell me what my senses would.
By being in a place, things occur to me which otherwise wouldn't.
I went to the London Aquarium on Saturday. If I wanted to set a scene there, I could look at photos and read about it on the internet but I wouldn't pick up what I did when visiting. When you first go in you have to negotiate the shark walk, a glass walkway with sharks swimming below. This worried a lot of children including mine. I didn't like it either as there was a queue ahead meaning I had to hover over the glass walkway with a deep tank of water beneath it. Out of the vast selection of marine life at the Aquarium, my favourites were the jellyfish which glow in the dark and the seahorses which wrap their tails around the reeds. The eerie music reminiscent of a health spa and the darkness became irritating after a while. There was a stench of fish and the need to take my coat off in the tropical section and to put it back on in the penguin viewing ice cave. Of course if I was setting a scene in the Aquarium I wouldn't use all of this information. But it would help me to picture what the place is like and it's always good to know what a character is wearing. If I was writing a scene set in a different Aquarium, I could get away with using my visit to this one as research. But if I was writing a scene set in a City such as New York City I think the only way to make that scene come to life is to go there.
I worked in New York in January 2001. I was called into my boss' office on a Monday asking if I could go to New York on the Tuesday to clear a backlog and do some training. I hadn't been to America before and I was so excited. I stayed in a hotel on Park Avenue which was walking distance from the office on Madison Avenue.
Although I'd seen loads of films set in New York, being there felt different from what I'd expected. There was the reaction of Americans to my English accent and the need to use American words and phrases to make myself understood. I started saying, 'Can I get a latte...?' when ordering my morning coffee. Initially I was confused when Americans said 'Excuse me?' because they wanted me to repeat something.
I walked down Park Avenue a few times during a blizzard, watching the snow ploughs at work. The traffic continued as if there was no snow, the taxis slipping and sliding everywhere, beeping their horns at cars ahead. Heaps of snow lined the streets and the aroma of hot dogs and roasted chestnuts wafted from the Street Vendors' stalls.
When it wasn't snowing, the sky was blue and I needed to wear sunglasses. The sub-zero temperatures and starched hotel bed linen made my skin incredibly dry. I put on half a stone as the restaurant and takeaway portions were twice the size of those at home. The steaks were incredible. There was so much choice when ordering food in a restaurant - the different varieties of cheese on offer to go with a burger were astounding.
These are just a few of my observations of New York which I used for several scenes in my novel, 'The Grandson' (which I'm trying to get an agent for...). Again I didn't use all of this information when writing these scenes but it did help me to imagine what my characters lives were like so I could structure the scenes more effectively.
I'd be interested to know if you prefer to write about places you've visited or if you have any other comments.

29 comments:

  1. Anita, this is a great post. I feel the same when I'm writing my scenes. A large part of my novel is set in York. Not being overly familiar with the city, I took myself off there on the train several times, notepad, pen & camera in hand. No way would I have gained the insight I did from only reading books or websites. I met all sorts of lovely people who were only too willing to share their time and their knowledge with me. Whilst doing some research in an estate agents, one lady even made me a cuppa!

    I totally agree with what you've said about New York as well. There's nothing like experiencing the sights sounds and smells of a place to capture that authenticity.

    I wish you the very best of luck in finding an agent for 'The Grandson' Can't wait to read it. x x

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    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comment Jan. I love New York-it's one of the most exciting places I've been to.X

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  2. I always write about where I know. Partly because it's quicker and easier than doing the research, partly because there's less chance of dropping in a wrong detail which sets the Reader's teeth on edge.
    I'm lucky to have a decent variety of places to choose from.
    Good luck with finding an agent (I still haven't found one either).

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    1. Hi Rhoda, Thanks for your comment and the good luck wish. Good luck to you too!

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  3. Hi,

    Yep, write about places you know, places you've been and it all seems more real within a novel. Researching through tourist info always sounds like a tourist guide narration! :o

    best
    F

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    1. Thanks for your comment Francine. I agree.

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  4. I think you're completely right Anita, if you haven't been there someone will always point out a mistake. New York sounds lovely.I don't know if I could walk on the glass walkway with sharks below sounds scary.I remember a film where the glass smashed in a glass tunnel in an aquarium really put me off.

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    1. Hi Anne, the glass walkway was awful and I couldn't walk across it quickly because of the queue of people in front - that film sounds really scary!

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  5. I do prefer to write about places I know, because then I can close my eyes and recall exactly how I felt when I was there... and relate that to how my MC might feel!

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    1. Thanks for your comment Talli. I find it easier to write about somewhere I've been for this reason-it's amazing how photos taken can trigger memories of a place too

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  6. I found you on She Writes, and I'm glad I stopped by. What a great subject. Yes, I love to imagine scenes in the places I've visited. New experiences just stir up creative juices :)

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    1. I'm glad you stopped by Katie- I'll have a look for you on She Writes (for anyone interested this is a website for female writers - www.shewrites.com)

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  7. I love reading your impressions of New York, Anita. It makes the benefits of a proper eye-witness account very clear - because, as you say, it's about more than just the eyes. I love the way you convey what struck you as odd as an outsider, how you felt, how you changed whilst there etc. I like to write about places I know too.

    I was interested to hear an episode of Open Book recently which discussed authors who use settings they've never visited, but have been critically acclaimed for their sense of place. It's still available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b019rgt3#synopsis

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    1. Thanks for your lovely comment Clare. I like your descriptions of Cambridge on your blog - they brings back memories of a place I loved living in!

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  8. I definitely agree, you need to get a feel for a place in order to perfectly capture the scene. There is only so much research can do for you. I have tried setting stories in places I've never been to, and it just feels very artificial and stilted, and I battle to get the writing to flow. Plus, you open yourself up to a whole lot of pernickety (sp?) readers who do live in the place, who will say "That's not right." etc.

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    1. Hello, thanks for your comment. Writing about places I've visited also means it's a perfect excuse to go back...

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  9. So interesting, Anita. I'm from Yorkshire/Leeds and interestingly I unconsciously write novels with a Yorshire/Northern setting. It isn't until lately that I've realised!

    You do need to see a place in your mind's eye and 'feel it'

    xx

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    1. Hi Debbie, the heroine in my book 1 is from North Yorkshire as we lived there for a few years when I was younger. It's a beautiful part of the country and well worth writing about!

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  10. I love New York and can't wait to visit there again. How lovely that you worked there.

    I must admit that I've only written about places that I've either lived in or visited. I think that by being in a place you pick up the different querks that you'd otherwise not notice by researching it over the internet.

    Jersey, South Africa, Paris, London, Shropshire and Sorrento are places I've written about so far.

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    1. Hi Debbie, you've written about some lovely places. Working in New York was amazing-a month I'll never forget!

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  11. I totally agree Anita, I much prefer to write about somewhere I've been. I recently started my first draft of bk 2 and am writing about somewhere I haven't been for a long time and it's proving a bit tricky. I may have to use it as an excuse to go back... xx

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    1. I used this reason to return to Siena in 2007. I'd lived there as a student in 1994 so it was strange returning as a proper grown up. It was great because I collected loads of information such as maps and took photos of places I wanted to use as settings- this really helped with my research.

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  12. Yes, writing about somewhere we have been as opposed to just imagined infuses the writing with so many more of the senses and those surprising first impressions that don't exist in the imagined version of a place we have heard about but never been to.

    I remember writing about olives and taking my notebook out to a winebar and ordering some to see if writing when fully conscious of all the sensations because I was putting myself through the experience of eating and enjoying them rather than just thinking of it made any difference and oh my did it ever. Every time I read that piece I'm right there reliving that experience of simply eating fresh, succulent olives.

    Bonne Continuation!

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    1. Hi Claire, thanks for your comment. I've taken notebooks to cafes in Italy and New York and tried to describe the sound of the coffee machine and the atmosphere etc so I could recreate a scene.

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  13. Great post, Anita - and your descriptions are wonderful. I'd much rather write about places I know but a good guide book and the Internet does when absolutely necessary. Your own experiences have shown how much more authentic it is to be in a place - you'd never have got the shark walk fear from a book!

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    1. Hi Rosemary, thanks for your lovely comment. That shark walk was an experience I won't forget in a hurry! (the kids are still talking about how scary it was!)

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  14. Great stuff Anita - and I totally agree. It ties in with writing in "voices" I know - so if I were going to set a story in the USA it would have to be from the point of view of a visiting Brit - like I was. The feel and smell of a place - as you say, can't be had on-line. I usually manage to find an out-of-date map so that a pedantic git like my OH will say - the Number 98 bus doesn't go there any more, it changed routes in 2005 .... gggrrr.

    We're lucky enough to go travelling a lot since I stopped work and I always have a notebook & pen on me to write down the really distinctive things that made a place stand out for me.

    Great subject!

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  15. I use real places I know when writing (even if they have a different name in the story!) because I feel safer! I usually write what I know - but occasionally I get Wikipedia or Google to help out! Nice to 'meet' you - was just blog-surfing! I'm your newest follower! Linda

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  16. Thanks Cameron and Linda for your comments (and thanks Linda for following my blog, have reciprocated). Good point Cameron re point of view. In my Book 1 I have the points of view of an American woman and an English woman. The English woman views New York in a different way from the American woman because everything is new to her.

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