Sunday, February 6, 2011

Write What You Know, Know What You Write: Does It Apply to Settings?

“Write what you know” sounds redundant. Obviously, people will write about their experiences, their world and what is familiar to them. Otherwise, the writer is expected to do some serious research. It is assumed that, unless an author is setting his novel in his hometown, he/she will travel to the cities described in his/her book. But is that so necessary in fictional works?

Certain genres seldom benefit from autobiographical experience, and require more research than others (i.e. historical novels). In Fantasy and Science Fiction imagination is much more important than empirical knowledge. There is no way that J.K. Rowling ever visited Hogwarts or that Tolkien travelled to the Middle Earth.

Visiting Pompey might give you a feeling of what the natural setting was back then, but it won´t tell you how Ancient Romans lived and thought in the days before Vesuvius erupted. Visiting modern New Orleans won´t tell you how it was in the Antebellum. When I returned to my hometown, of Viña del Mar, twenty-three years after I had left for the States, I found most buildings and familiar places gone or changed. Discussing the feeling with my father, he told me that the town that I had known was twice as different from Viña in his childhood. Therefore, when I began writing a novel about Viña in the Forties, I relied much more in old books and my Dad’s memories than on the landscape I could glimpse from my window.

Everybody knows that Margaret Mitchell was a proud daughter of the South. Born and raised In Georgia, she grew up hearing family stories about the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. She did ample historical research as well, and yet historians are baffled, because Clayton County where she places Tara, the O’Hara’s home, used to be a farmhouse area. In the mid XIX century it was inhabited by small planters, and what they called “plantations” were rural backwoods homes. No Neoclassical palaces or landed aristocracy around. However, Peggy pits the scenery with large buildings standing on Greek columns, surrounded by vast cotton fields. This is a case of literary geographical license that none of us, GWTW lovers, mind.

Dan Brown’s critics have found many geographical mistakes in The Da Vinci Code. Is it another case of geographical license or Brown just forgot tiny details of Parisian streets? To be quite honest, I feel that nowadays, you don’t need to travel to a place in order to create a location. Thanks to YouTube videos, and tourist albums all over the Internet, you can get a feeling of topography place that sometimes a trip won´t give you. Moreover, if you are dealing with historical geography, a trip to the modern equivalent of your location could actually hinder you.

In my last novel, my alter ego Violante travels from Andalusia to Portugal. The natural barrier, in that region, is the Guadiana River. Nowadays, a bridge lets you do the crossing, but since my novel takes place in the early 30’s, I had to do a bit of study. It turned out that previous to the bridge’s construction, there was a ferry service. Excellent! Not so fast. Further exploration told me that ferrying people across the Guadiana was a post Spanish Civil War phenomenon. In the early Thirties, travelers had to rely on local boats and rafts to get to the other side.

And that brings us to one of my favorite writers, Jules Verne, better known as the “Father of Science Fiction.” This XIX century Frenchman managed, in pre computer days, to draft a novel per year, ending up with a list that included worldwide bestsellers and beloved classics such as Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

Verne combined adventure stories with scientific elements, some uncannily prophetic. But the most remarkable touch of Verne´s fiction was that although he set his novels in exotic countries, from the Amazonian jungle to China, he never traveled outside Europe. He did research through magazines, newspapers and his well-provided library. So far, nobody has disputed his geographical accuracy.

Recently we had a similar case with the award-winning The Tenderness of Wolves. Stef Penney sets her debut novel, a historical thriller, in the XIX century Canadian wilderness. The odd part was that Ms. Penney, an agoraphobia sufferer, had never been to Canada.

In this day of reality shows, we are obsessed with a sort of “realism” that implies, when it comes to writing, to rely strictly on personal experience. That is fine but does it leave room for imagination? What do you think?


  1. In most cases, when a novel is set in a real place, I couldn't verify if certain landmarks, or favorite places to eat, etc. are fact. I haven't been to most of these places.

    So, to me as long as a setting is logical and realistic (excluding of course something fantasy or sci-fi where the settings are all created), I believe that it's totally acceptable for imagination to come into play.

  2. I like to think that all the buildings John Grisham has taken me too are real. That said, I write about what/where I know. Even if they're fake towns, they're representational of cities I know in Wisconsin (so far).

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post, V.

    I believe setting in a novel is a multi-faceted, rich amalgam of experience, imagination and yearning on behalf of the author.

    That and perhaps the influence of a sprinkling of images one might find surfing the net. ;)

  4. There is an interesting debate in the historical writing world on this topic. Personally, if you are at all able to visit something representative of what you use in your story (like a plantation home of some sort or a farmhouse from the 1920s), then by all means, do so. On a much larger scope I'd have to agree, so much changes over the years that for some places it's absolutely pointless to visit them.

  5. Funny that you have posted on this subject precisely when I am having doubts about the accuracy of my setting. And I have visited the place three times! So now, I'm doing most of my research online and through books (which I can rely on more than my memory.) Even if I visit the place again, there are a lot of things I have to imagine. For example: the hacienda where a lot of the action takes place is now in ruins and the town from my novel (which takes place in the 19th Century) doesn't exist anymore. Having said this, I think it is probably optimum to be able to visit the place for things such as smells and details you may not be able to get in books, but I agree with you that it is not indispensable.

    Great post!

  6. I think we're all keen to visit our 'locations' if time and money permits. One of the more fun things about writing and writerly research. But personally, I've used Google Earth (including the street view option where available) to wander around my locations without ever setting a non-virtual foot there. I'm sure I'm not alone!

    And I'm sure Jules Verne would have loved Google Earth too if it had been available back then...

  7. All I can say is, thank goodness for Google (and Google street maps in particular; I couldn't visit NY in my last novel but I could literally "walk" down the street though my laptop!).

    I feel a lot more comfortable when I'm writing what I know (to the point that I suck at anything that isn't contemporary realism). Everyone has their own knack for voice and setting, but people do seem to hit their writing stride as they grow older, see more places and find empathy in new situations. I know that I do.

  8. Mm Adina Perhaps Verne had acces to Google Earth. As a child I used to imagne him as a time traveler.
    I thank everyone´s comments. I don't mean to put down the importance of knowing and loving the place one writes about. I envy globetrotters, but nowadays traveling is expensive and dangerous. If you can travel, great, otherwise avoid pat downs, hazardous foods and being caught up in revolts that seem to breakdown around the world everyday.
    What I wanted to say is that a writer should not be penalized for not setting foot in every city he dares to cover in his fictional trip.

  9. Moreover , the town you write about will always be different from the one your neighbours know. I recall telling people of walking under the blazing sun, around 10am, in the French Quarter and being chased down Rue St. Anne by a gang of hissing cats(most probably Confederates who could smell I came from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line). People from New Orleans claim I am making this up, They have never heard or seen those feline gangs, but then few dared venture out in a June morning.

  10. Great post! I think that the fiction writer's job is to suspend the reader's disbelief as long as possible. If the way she portrays the setting does not wake the reader from the dream she is weaving around them, then I don't think that little discrepancies in the details of the location matter. It's a novel, not a travelogue.

  11. In “Amerika” Kafka takes a trip by boat from Europe to Buffalo! But then that was Kafka. I must say that my apology is for writers who although have never travel to a place, manage to describe it accurately and convey the atmosphere. However, I confess to clench my teeth when people make geographical mistakes in novels set in New York or Chile, places I know well. But, I hear that most complains about this issue come from the inhabitants of the country depicted. And those complains target even those writers who have actually been to the location!

  12. What an interesting post! I think even when it is completely made up, you are writing what you know. It's your imagination, your world, of course you know all about it! ;-)

    I wanted to let you know about a giveaway I'm offering on my blog Come by if you get a chance!

  13. Great post. Personal experience with a place would be ideal and a lot more fun, especially if it's someplace warm, but not many of us can afford to dash off and spend a couple weeks in a foreign country just to experience our setting firsthand. Thank goodness for the Internet.

  14. There will always be those nitpickers that will try to find flaws in a story. But the majority of readers will be fine if the writing is good, the setting is described vividly, and fits with the plot of the book and the characters. (However, it also doesn't hurt for the author to include a disclaimer and in an historical, especially I really appreciate when the author provides some notes that explain where he/she deviated and why)


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.