Monday, November 10, 2014

Writing about a Place You’ve Never Been

Scotland--Where I'd like to go....
Always in the past, I’ve chosen to set my novels in places where I’ve traveled, but after awhile, you run out of familiar settings. With my current project, I wanted to write about a place I wanted to go to, but haven’t traveled to yet.

Can it be done?

For a long time I thought that writing about a place you’ve never been was impossible (it completely violates the “write what you know” adage), but then I read a writing book by an author who wrote a series of books about India. He had never traveled to India, but loved the country. Of course, he did a lot of research. But he was certain the reason his books did well was that he was passionate about the culture--not because he was an expert.
I tend to agree. Writing what you love is more important than writing what you know.

So, if you’re considering writing about a place you’ve never been, here’s a few things I did to help me picture this place in order to write about it:

  1. Talk to people who’ve been there. It’s interesting how easily outsiders can characterize a place. I talked to a few people who’ve traveled to the settings in my novel and asked them about the details their impressions. This helped me include authentic details.
  2. Read travel guides. I found travel guides to the country I’m writing about invaluable. From everything from how long a particular ferry ride takes, to common expressions, to the taste of the country’s favorite soda, I learned details that will help me make sure I got things right.
  3. Watch films about my setting. (Nothing like an excuse to hang out on Netflix and/or You Tube for awhile.) I found You Tube great for movies about tourist destinations, the insides of buildings, and the countryside. Netflix was good for movies set in my country and historical documentaries. Watching a DVD series about this country’s history (although I won’t use most of the details in my novel), helped me get a better feel for the people and what has shaped them as a culture.
  4. Memoirs. These were invaluable, especially since the memoirs I read were from outsiders. (My protagonist is a tourist.) Again, the details were helpful, but also reading memoirs helped me gain a sense of place and culture.
Have you written a story set in a place you’ve never been? Do you have any tips?

11 comments:

  1. People don't care how much you know, they want to know you care. Passion definitely makes a difference.
    I've never been to outer space, but hopefully my enthusiasm for it came through in my books.

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    1. Ha! Yes, it would be impossible to visit your setting. What you say about caring is so true.

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  2. I struggled with worldbuilding when I wrote my first novel, a fantasy. I need to picture an actual place when I write, even if I change lots of details. But I have also watched hours of youtube videos if I want to write a realistic novel about a place I've never been. I've never climbed Katahdin (although I've been in Maine) and I'm currently writing about someone who climbs it. So those videos are invaluable.

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    1. Interesting! I love Youtube for things like that. What you said reminded me that even when you've been to a place, you still need to do research, because there's always something you don't know.

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  3. The novel I'm querying right now is set in post Revolutionary Boston. I've never been to Boston, but really want to. So I did lots of internet searching, particularly on the Freedom Trail, which had a lot of the historical buildings that show up in the story. And I watched historical movies for the clothes(like The Patriot- love that movie, though it's so sad). I'm actually going to be writing a book at some point that is set in a place I have been, Madison, IN. That's a first for me! I'm looking forward to visiting again and taking pics.

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  4. Your novel sounds fascinating, Leandra! I really loved the Patriot too. When I've written a historical, I've also watched movies from the time period. It's great for clothes, like you said, and also sounds (horse clopping, musketfire, etc.) that I wouldn't know as a modern reader.
    You sound like me. I'm always fascinated by other places. I've never set anything in my hometown, but perhaps someday I will. :)

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  5. I also read books about the location. You know, I've taken this to a whole new level by writing about a place I've never been in a time period long enough ago that the entire scope of the land has changed. I totally agree that it's about the passion, not necessarily the knowledge. If you love something enough you'll put in the work to make it the best.

    Unleashing the Dreamworld

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    1. That's the hard part with historicals. My YA is like that. I've traveled to the country I set it in, but, of course, everything was different 200 years ago. In some ways, writing a contemporary set in a country I haven't been to is easier, because I don't have to figure out what has changed.

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    2. Agreed! Historicals are tricky, but when they're done well, they're amazing.

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  6. I've been to Scotland!!! I traveled all over with my mom and stayed in youth hostels there but it was 30 years ago (I was 14!) Oh my gosh I want to go back so badly.

    Hey, I'm in a similar situation, my WIP is set in Alaska, which I've been planning to visit for 20 years now but somehow it just hasn't happened yet. I've read tons of books, watched movies.. but haven't yet found anyone who has been to the particular part of Alaska I chose for my setting (Wrangell St. Elias national park). The thing I really need help with that I can't get from books or DVDs is are the smells!

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  7. These are great ideas, Jenni! My very first book I started writing years ago but never finished took place mostly in South Africa and while I had never been there, I used my husband a TON because he used to live there when he was in high school. That combined with tons of research helped me get a clear picture. Too bad I never finished that story...maybe I'll have to go back to it in the future. :)

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