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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Do you really need to go there?

Many fiction writers set their books and stories in interesting or exotic locales, making the reading as well as the writing process entertaining, and often providing a much-needed escape from reality for both author and reader.  They talk to their accountants about the tax write-offs of traveling to Paris or Italy to research their next book.  But do you really need to actually visit the particular setting you are writing about?  

Many writers make up fictional worlds of their own - places they could not possibly visit.  Or could they?  Even the most fantastical setting could be based on an actual place a writer has visited.  Or maybe they place their characters in a generic fictional town in the certain part of a particular state, but they likely have a place or places in mind when they craft their stories.  Although it may not be exotic, it’s familiar to them.   

The locations in which I have set my stories are usually ones with which I am quite familiar.  Examples are San Francisco, where I lived for six years, and New Orleans, where my husband lived and I visited quite often for many years.  To me, these places have an intriguing mystique and make the stories more interesting because of where they are set. The feel and flavor of a place soaks into your psyche and seeps into the writing, making the fiction realistic enough to draw in the reader.  It’s more of a feeling that you get from a place that influences the writing, rather than coordinates on a map.

Like the sights, smells, and sounds of a Mardi Gras crowd.  


Or the serene and magical gardens of San Francisco. 



I have to admit that, with the help of Google Maps Street View, I have lounged on my couch and taken myself on a tour through the streets of North Beach in San Francisco.  I then decided that I should visit the physical spots, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.  After this small experiment, I discovered that I didn’t learn anything new upon making a personal visit.  Of course, I had been to the area before and just wanted to verify that my memory was correct.         

So, do you really need to go there?  I vote in the affirmative.  It makes the story more real, and if it’s more real in the writer’s mind, it’s more real on the page.  You might be able to get away with a quick scene in a foreign locale that you haven’t visited, or even an entire book.  But you would miss the small nuances - all the nooks and crannies you would never see unless you had been there.  For instance, you might miss the fellow walking down the sidewalk leading his Shetland pony by a leash.  Or the flock of red and green parrots flying overhead on Telegraph Hill.  

Now, I better get started on that story set in Maui.

What do you think?  Do you really need to go there?




Angela Crider Neary is an attorney by day and writer by night. She is an avid mystery reader and especially enjoys reading novels set in interesting locales. She was inspired to write her first mystery novella, Li'l Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau: The Case of the Parrots Desaparecidos, by one of her favorite areas in San Francisco, Telegraph Hill.  Stay tuned for her second book in the series, Li'l Tom and the Case of the New Year Dragon. To learn more, visit her on Facebook and Amazon.


15 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly, and if you need to research Texas, you have plenty of places to stay with your many many friends and your family.

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    1. I think I need to make a research trip soon!

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  2. Well done! I think you're exactly right.

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  3. Ed McBain invented a fictional city (based on New York City) so he wouldn't have to worry about getting details wrong.

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  4. I'm not a writer of fiction. But I often think I can tell the difference between things that are written about a place where the author has not been, and things that are written about a place the author knows well. (And I am not giving examples.) Might be a reason why authors who are writing about "real" places (NYC, Chicago...) often live or have lived there.

    I also have no idea what the IRS stance is on being able to deduct the expenses of trips...

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    1. I don't know about IRS deductions, either, so i don't think I'll try that any time soon!

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  5. Angela,

    Whenever feasible, I visit the places I write about. Since I tend to keep my stories to the eastern Colorado plains, northern New Mexico, and the Texas panhandle, I'm within a reasonable driving distance to actually see the land and envision what it was like during the late 19th century.

    Then again, I'm not that much of a stickler for the accuracy in a writer's description of a place I'm familiar with as long as the description isn't too far off. We all take a bit of poetic license to craft a good story.

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    1. I'm guessing many writers set their stories in the places they live or have lived since they are most familiar with those places and can easily visit the areas they want to see. I'm not opposed to taking some poetic license, either!

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  6. When I was younger, I traveled extensively so I had a chance to see Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Texas, and all of the Midwestern states. Since I have lived in North Carolina since I was five, I needed a place I was familiar with to write my westerns without having to endlessly research. I thought Wyoming was such a beautiful state, I chose to put my stories there--and I still ended up researching a great deal.
    I have written about the north central part of Pennsylvania in THE VIOLIN, but I had a lot of help with that locale since we went there at least once a year to visit relatives.
    I have also created a world entirely--the world of Winatuke in my paranormal, Medieval trilogy LEGENDS OF WINATUKE. But, of course it's easier to make up a world than to have to research a place from afar.
    I sincerely doubt I will ever write about a place across the ocean. I am afraid of flying unless my life depends on it, but ore than that, I have a limited budget for traveling now that I'm retired. I know those of you who can visit exotic locations will certainly enjoy "researching" the place.
    All the best, Angela.

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    1. Thanks, Sarah! I have never visited Wyoming, although it seems like a beautiful and mysterious place. I've also never attempted to make up my own world, but maybe some day!

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  7. Great post, Angela. However much we research a place using photos, videos, and even Street View, our own experiences of places comes over so much stronger in our stories if we've actually been there. I'm always thrilled when reviewers say my descriptions of Ireland make them feel as if they have been there themselves. It seems my love of Ireland shines through in some way. :-)

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    1. Agreed! I always feel like I'm cheating a bit if I try to write about a place I don't know.

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