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?