Writing About Places You've Never Been To

Discussion in 'The Reading Room' started by Tux Toledo, Oct 25, 2011.

  1. Tux Toledo

    Tux Toledo One of the Regulars

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    The old rule is you should write about what you know. However, with the advent of the internet and access to videos and photos, in addition to informative articles, do you think a writer can effectively set a novel in a location he/she has never been to?
     
  2. Shangas

    Shangas I'll Lock Up

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    "Write about what you know" is a stupid rule. Nobody should ever follow it. It's misleading and it's limiting.

    I've written stories set in places that I've never been to. I set a story in Shanghai. Never been there. I set stories in cities in America I've never been to.

    What you "know" is subjective. You don't have to GO somewhere to know stuff about it. That's why I hate that rule. I never follow it. And if you do, I firmly believe you're severely limiting your writing and imaginative capabilities.

    So you don't know what a place is like. READ. ASK. RESEARCH. BE IMAGINATIVE. That's what I do.

    I'm willing to bet that almost nobody on this forum has EVER gone to New York, London, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris, Melbourne, Los Angeles, CHicago or Toronto in the 1920s and 30s.

    But that doesn't stop people writing about it. But how can they? They don't KNOW ANYTHING about those places because they've never been there at that time.

    Or have they?

    See my point?

    I'm willing to bet that nobody here has ever gone to the moon or been to space. Does that stop people writing science-fiction? I'm willing to bet most people here have never flown an airplane or gone to sea. Does that stop them writing maritime adventures or round-the-world quests?

    I bet nobody here has ever experienced the American Civil War. Doesn't stop people writing fiction pieces about it. Or any other war for that matter.

    It
    Is
    A
    Stupid
    Rule.

    Ignore it.

    You're only limited by what you read and research about. You're only limited by your interest and your determination. "Knowing" is irrelevant.
     
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2011
  3. Terry292

    Terry292 New in Town

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    A few years ago, my wife had three articles published about golf courses in Las Vegas, NV. She's only been to Vegas once and doesn't play golf at all. So, you don't necessarily have to have been to a place to write about it. You don't even have to be an expert in the subject you're writing about. That's one of the advantages of the internet: you can research almost any subject you wish. Then, you can go from there to improve your knowledge.
     
  4. Tomasso

    Tomasso Incurably Addicted

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    If you are writing a travelogue, then yes; otherwise no.
     
  5. davidraphael

    davidraphael Practically Family

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    Personally, I think that Shangas, though he/she is partly right, is 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater' a bit. I think it's a bit more complex than that.

    The rule 'write what you know' does not necessarily refer to 'cruder' narrative elements such as locations and historical periods - all these can be researched (and once you have researched something then you DO know it), and even then you only need enough detail for the audience to feel that the location/period is genuine. Absolute historical accuracy, for example, is not even necessary. If you want accuracy go write a non-fiction book or make a documentary.

    If you write fiction your only job is to create a believable world, whether or not it really exists.

    If anything it's easier to write about far-flung locations and time periods because the vast majority of people will have no experience of them to compare.

    I think 'write what you know' (which is a suggestion or a principle more than a so-called rule) is applicable more to the important aspects of story creation, those being the characters, the conflicts and emotional content. If you don't know what it feels like to survive a disastrous marriage, to be fired, to have your children hate you, to make a terrible mistake and feel profound guilt, shame, or to overcome terrible odds to feel elation or genuine joy, then you risk the believability of your story.

    First and foremost the characters have to feel like real people. Whether your character is a spaceman on Mars, a POW in Poland, a 19th cowboy, or butler in a 17th century English mansion is irrelevant - the character must display emotions and concerns that the reader can identify with. Take Shakespeare - he wrote about Macbeth. Did 16th/17th century Shakespeare care about the historical or locational facts of 11th century Scotland? Probably not that much: yes, he would have wanted enough to create a believable environment, but his priority was to get right what the audience could identify with the most - the human stuff: greed, power, manipulation, paranoia, fear. And these emotions are as believable to us now as they were then. We all feel them at one time or another, no matter who we are.

    Ok, so the writer may write about losing a wife even though he may not have felt what it's like to lose a wife, but if he's sensitive he'll use what he felt when he lost someone else - an old girlfriend, his parents, a best friend, whatever. But I don't think it's easy to write about emotions you have no experience of.

    Your only job is that of creating believability out of a fictional situation (a fiction writer uses lies to tell the truth.), but how you get that is your business. Yes, it may be possible to create a believable world that you have absolutely no experience at on any level, but very few of us are innate geniuses.

    Ultimately, my advice would be: 1. Don't write anything unless you are absolutely confident that you can make it appear authentic to the reader. 2. Believability is more important than facts (though of course there will be some cross-over)
     
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2011
  6. LoveMyHats2

    LoveMyHats2 I’ll Lock Up.

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    You can think of a great Author, Isaac Asimov. Many of the "fictional" things he writes of, robots, ray guns, space ships...all fiction that turned non fiction. He never went to mars or the moon....but did in his writings....and maybe perhaps in his dreams. I personally think a writer has only what limits he or she sets for themselves.
     
  7. Shangas

    Shangas I'll Lock Up

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    Okay, first..."He".

    Secondly...

    That was a long way to get to a one-sentence piece of advice. But I do agree with it. I think you summed it up very nicely.

    Maybe my first response and analysis was a bit overdramatic. I apologise if that offended anyone. However, I don't for a minute sway from the essence of it. That you should only write about what you "know" is an extremely subjective argument. How do you define what you 'know'? There's dozens of definitions. You don't have to have gone to a place to know stuff about it. As A.C. Lyles says, you would probably only really have to do that if you're writing a travel-guide or something where extremely detailed, local-style knowledge of a place is essential to a good piece of writing.

    To me, in the world of fiction-writing, writing about what you 'know' doesn't really come into it. It's whether or not you have the skill to make people enjoy what you write. It's whether or not you have the ability to make people believe in what you write. Whether or not what you've written sounds authentic and credible and believable. It's whether or not someone can enjoy it for what it is. And this relates to any piece of fiction.

    But to get there, you need to be open and unrestricted. And I don't think can do that if you follow that 'rule' for the pure fact that there's a million interpretations of it, and if you followed any one of them, you'd end up limiting what you would write about and limiting your creativity moreso than if you just ignored it and, to use a horribly cliched line, "followed your heart".
     
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2011
  8. davidraphael

    davidraphael Practically Family

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    Yes, I agree. If you take it as a steadfast rule, you're limiting yourself enormously. It's just something that can help keep you in track; it's just a word of warning.

    Following your heart, or following your bliss, as J Campbell calls it, is crucial.
    A writer, any artist, should feel free to do whatever the hell they want...as long as they remember who their intended reader is and what that reader will expect. I've had to edit a lot of writers in my time and, unfortunately, there are many who have allowed their artistic and creative enthusiasm to run away with them and they have produced work that reads hollow because their world or character actions were not entirely credible. Yes, it's a matter of skill and how good the writer is. But, in my experience, the simple and unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of writers, particularly amateur writers, simply aren't strong enough to be able to produce reader-recognisable environments (much less emotional conflicts) that they do not have some experience of, in whatever form.

    I think it's all connected. A reader can't truly enjoy a work unless they feel that it is credible and believable. They're inextricably linked. If you break 'the narrative dream', as John Gardner calls it, you're written a bad piece of work that brings the reader out of the story/dream. This is often, most importantly, a plot vs character issue, but it can also be true of environments.

    Another good piece of advice I learned was 'Learn the rule inside and out and then forget about it'...
     
  9. Tomasso

    Tomasso Incurably Addicted

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    What, like they did on Wall Street this last go-round....


    j/k


    ...one should learn the rules before you break them........
     
  10. davidraphael

    davidraphael Practically Family

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    Exactly!

    I often come across writers who decide from the outset that they're going to ignore, for example, 3-act structure -or any narrative structural/technical principle for that matter- because they feel that it is limiting to them as artists. But as you say, you can't break a rule unless you know what it is. You can't transcend, successfully manipulate, or oppose something unless you know what it is, what it can do, and what its limitations are.

    Picasso moved to abstraction because he had already mastered more figurative forms and worked out ways to transcend accepted forms of visual representation. Hitchcock could kill off Janet Leigh in Psycho when he did because he knew exactly what would happen to audience's emotions if he did it at that point in the narrative structure (because he knew intimately the way conventional structure works, so knew precisely how to play against it)

    Writers who don't learn the craft first risk re-inventing the wheel, or producing work that simply doesn't hang together properly - I've seen it happen again and again.

    I'm going off-topic a bit i think so I'll stop.
     
  11. Yeps

    Yeps Call Me a Cab

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    If you are going to write about in a location you've never been, you better put in the work to make it right. Everything from getting the maps right, to getting what stores/restaurants are there, to dialect.

    An example from film. In Live Free or Die Hard, the California writers kept referring to "The 495" for the Beltway (which we call either "The Beltway" or simply "495"). Referring to a road as "The ###" is a blatant Californism and therefore breaks the illusion. Not as much as the tollbooth he ramps off of though, as we just don't have those. Or the big circular ramp that was supposed to be in Baltimore.

    The point is, in real places, you have to be really sure you are doing it right, which is harder when you haven't spent significant time there.
     
  12. Shangas

    Shangas I'll Lock Up

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    While that's perfectly true (that when writing about a place you haven't to, research the hell out of it first), such a limitation shouldn't mean that you CANNOT EVER EVER EVER write about it. There's no commandment saying that THOU SHALT NOT WRITE OF LOCALES WHICH THOU HAST NOT SEEN WITH THINE OWN EYES.

    It just means that it's irresponsible and ignorant of a person to write of a place before doing lots and lots and lots and lots of research first and asking lots of questions first and probably most importantly of all: Not making assumptions of anything.

    I did that when I was writing my latest story. I'd set it in a place that I'd never been to (and most likely never will), in a time when most people on this forum probably weren't alive. So before I started writing the story I did a bucketload of research beforehand covering absolutely everything I could think of. Law-enforcement, transport, street-names, buildings, building-addresses, currency, geography, nightlife, languages, demographics, food, communication, newspapers, regional history and bugger knows what else; I forget because I did so much.

    But it's that kind of exhaustive research that is essential before you tackle writing about a place that you've never been to. In fact, that's the amount of research you should do about *anything* that you don't know...before you start writing big things about it. Not doing so and then wondering why people are complaining about all these mistakes that are sticking out of the ground like upturned tree-roots, as you say, Yeps, "Breaks the illusion".

    ...By the way, the place I was researching was Shanghai in 1937.
     
  13. Icthruu74

    Icthruu74 New in Town

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    To me it makes it more real if the description of the location matches the location, if I have been there. I have never been to New York City, or California. You could write an entire book taking place in NYC, and I wouldn't know if the location was true to the area or not, and quite frankly if you took too many pains to describe it, I would be likely to skim through the description anyway. On the other hand, I read a book set in historic Ogden Utah, and it just happens that I went to college there. Some of the original buildings that were included in the book are still there and it was amazing to be able to mentally place the characters in a real location

    Many of the stories that I have written take place in the out-doors, and the location is taken from places that I have been.
     
  14. Tux Toledo

    Tux Toledo One of the Regulars

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    I appreciate all the thoughtful responses.
     
  15. Pompidou

    Pompidou One Too Many

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    I'd like to request a third option.
     
  16. Tux Toledo

    Tux Toledo One of the Regulars

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    How about a bottle of Frapin Cuvée 1888?
     
  17. When I first set out to write fiction some ten years ago, I made it a point to write about things I knew little or nothing about. After all, I was to be writing fiction, right? And the one thing I can't stand are novels that are thinly disguised biographies of the writer. "Joe Blow's first novel is of a stockbroker who finds himself . . . blah, blah, blah." Then you look at the blurb on the back, and lo and behold, Joe Blow is a stockbroker who . . . You get the point. I've always thought writers of fiction should be challenging themselves.

    Anyway, one of the best compliments came from a woman who read one of my short stories. It was a cynical/comical espionage piece set in the airport in Sophia, Bulgaria, and she came back to me and said, 'You captured the exact feel of that dingy airport." Turns out she had been through there a few times, but I hadn't been there once. I think it was the first time I really felt like a writer.

    Cheers and kind regards,

    Jack
     
  18. Shangas

    Shangas I'll Lock Up

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    Hi Jack,

    I agree. A fiction-writer has to be brave and self-challenging. If you always stick to "what you know", you're going to be severely limiting the stuff you write about.

    I live in Australia. I've lived here my entire life. I have never ONCE written a story set in Australia. There's enough other Australian writers who do that. I find it boring.
     
  19. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

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    My favorite example is a Spanish writer who sold fiction to the Nazis during WW2 in the guise of espionage. He claimed to be writing reports of shipping and troop movements from England when he never left Spain.

    By reading English newspapers, plus studying maps, railroad timetables and guidebooks he made some very shrewd guesses.

    When his spy masters asked where he was getting his information he told them the English sailors and dock workers were a demoralized lot, and you could get all the information you wanted for the price of a liter of wine in the many bodegas lining the Portsmouth waterfront lol.
     
  20. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

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    Then there was the case of Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote the Tarzan novels. He got so many angry letters about his ignorance of Africa that he stopped writing Tarzan stories and switched to science fiction. He figured when it came to Mars his guess was as good as anybody's and nobody could prove him wrong.

    The Tarzan novels still sold, in spite of his geographical blunders, and how.
     

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