Travel? Research? – Getting Your Setting Right

OR: Write What You Know, Or Risk What You Don’t Know

Paris, City of Light - What would it be like to live there?

 I always wonder if writers have visited or lived in the places they write about, and if they haven’t, how they feel comfortable enough writing about places they’ve never been. I’m always incredibly afraid of messing the place up and getting some hypercritical reader listing off all the details I got wrong. Which is why most of my stories have been set in Western Canada, or some fantasy world I made up.

I’m sure professional writers have a way of getting around this, but it seems to me that writing about a place you don’t know very well would involve a daunting amount of research, or an expensive travel habit. One solution, I suppose, would be to write about places you’ve already seen on vacation. For instance, I could try to write about Holland, or maybe Seattle – and after my trip to South America this summer (stay tuned for more details on this later!) I could write about Brazil. But I would still be afraid of writing a “touristy” description of the place, without the knowledge of what it’s like to actually live there.

A shortcut around this, of course, would be to make the main character of such a story a tourist. This might be one example of what I mean by saying professional writers develop their own ways of writing convincingly about their settings. I recently came across this post by Dean Wesley Smith about how all too often writers use research as an excuse not to write – they haven’t done the research so they can’t write the story. And, of course, the research looks so daunting they never do it, and the story never gets written. Dean Wesley Smith is of the opinion true writers find ways to keep writing no matter what. Because a writer who never writes is never going to make it.

A street in Northern Holland

A street in Northern Holland

That’s why I’m scared and reluctant to write about a place I’ve never been. I think at least visiting a place gives you an idea of its atmosphere, and living there is even better. But maybe it would be a good idea to challenge myself – to see if I have the skill of bringing to life a place I have never been to.

All the same, travel can really open your eyes! (And stimulate your writing). Even cultures that seem similar to ours, such as Holland and the other European cultures, do certain things slightly different. That is one reason I think going to Brazil this summer will be so interesting!

How about you – have you ever read a book where the setting wasn’t convincing? Should writers stick to what they know, or try branching out a little?

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14 Comments

Filed under On Writing

14 responses to “Travel? Research? – Getting Your Setting Right

  1. If I name my location, it’s probably going to be Louisiana, or at the very least Southern U.S. I did write about Papa being in Hawaii and Belgium, but I feel from the amount of war movies I’ve seen, I can speak about what life was like there during WWII. Also, there’s the fact that it’s mostly military life more than the local setting, so I don’t have to deal with a culture that’s too foreign to me.

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  2. Brazil seems so interesting.Brazil is very far from my house.Have a great trip.
    Of course I can write more interesting and detail the place I have been to.

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  3. My first novel (my current wip) is set in two places I have lived (Minneapolis and Charleston). The sequel will be in Istanbul (a place I have visited, but really would like to go back and do more research in).

    I think setting is really important. If you don’t know what you are reading about, your reader will notice.

    Brazil is on my list of places to visit. Have fun on your trip.

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  4. Alexia

    What would it be like to live in Paris ? Definitely not like the movies. Paris has this reputation of romantic city that I don’t believe to be true. Tourists are more amazed by the beauty of the city than us. Well, I do enjoy some of the beauties Paris has to offer but mostly it’s just very loud and crowded. And I never stay in the city during the summer because of the tourists. But if you really want to enjoy Paris you have to understand its history. There are some parts of the city where you can feel the weight of the past. I don’t know if that’s true for every city in the world but it is for Paris. I’ve been living here my whole life and that’s what I love most about it, you never stop been surprised.

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    • Wow, you actually live in Paris? I’ve visited there once and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was as beautiful as everyone said it would be. 🙂 That said, I know some people who visited it and were disappointed.
      I think what I enjoyed the most was the sense of history, like you said. There is no weight of the past in the city I live in – the city is barely a hundred years old.

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  5. Alexia

    Yep, but you make it sound so much more glamorous than it is lol! Oh, that’s too bad. What didn’t they like ?
    Paris is full of history, that’s true. Actually there’s an amazing book that was published maybe two years ago, and I wish they’d translate it for the tourists, cause it’s a very unique tour of the city through the subway stations. The author tells you about the city’s past and you learn a lot about the hidden Paris. When it got out even parisians loved it and a lot of them – including me – rediscovered the city because of it.
    Well, still, a lot can happen in a hundred years… Nobody probably thinks it’s gonna be the century of world wars until it is. Maybe you’ll get to live history instead (not that I wish for a WW located in your country of course – maybe something a little more joyful) !

    I keep writing those looong comments, I hope I’m not already boring you !

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    • No way, I love to read, so long comments are great for me! Some of my other commenters go long too. 🙂
      I think cities are a lot less glamorous when you actually live there. Some tourists have such a high opinion of Paris that when they visit, reality can never measure up to their imagination. For me, I didn’t think Paris could be as nice as all the books and movies said. But it was!
      What is the title of that book? It sounds very interesting! I know only a tiny bit of French, but maybe I could figure some of it out.

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  6. Alexia

    It’s called Métronome, and the author is Lorànt Deutsch. There’s an illustrated edition that might be easier if you want to translate from contexte.

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  7. Pingback: Writing Characters of Different Ethnicities | Stories and Stuff

  8. Pingback: How Not to Write About Brazil (Several Tips) | Stories and Stuff

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