Write what you know. Not?

THE ENGLISH PATIENT

Helga’s Post #70 — Late with my post this week, but likely not too many people waiting for it. Too much going on in Sochi.

Who has ever heard of Sochi before it got awarded the Olympics? More importantly, how many people today would NOT know what it is and where it is?

With that in mind, here are some musings about location and setting, about writing what you know, and the role they play in our writing.

Write what you know. True or False? Both. Maybe.

An adage preached to writers at seminars and workshops. Don’t write a medical thriller if you’re a tax advisor or accountant. Forget a novel that takes place in the Borneo jungle when you’ve never set foot outside your own country. Don’t try to write a culinary mystery if you don’t know how to boil an egg.

Rule One, according to mystery writer Jeffery Deaver: Write about settings you’re familiar with.

Fair enough. Or is it? How about writing a novel about slavery if you haven’t been one and you haven’t lived during the time of slavery? Or a sci-fi novel that takes place on a distant galaxy, millions of light-years away?

The author’s redeeming feature is that none of your readers will have personal experience of such events and therefore can’t renounce them. But what about settings? How do you make sure your readers will connect with the locations of your story?

Chances are your novel has several different settings, some that you have never been to. While research can take you a long way to describe different settings with accuracy, it’s fair to say you will not be able to get that intimate and personal connection to a place you have never been to. That sense of knowing what it feels like to walk those streets, to taste that food, observe and talk to people, listen to that special laughter of children and the myriad of things that make up the personal experience of being there will elude you if based on research alone. One of my favorite blogs, Adventures in Wonderland, captures this beautifully. Much more than a travel blog, it takes its readers along to experience all the facets and emotions the various locations bring about.

But it’s more than feeling a place with all the five senses. It’s also a willingness to put aside my own standards and prejudices and let the distinctive atmosphere or pervading spirit of a place change me. And when that happens, I know I want to write about it. It gives me the confidence to try and share my experiences with my readers in a more rewarding way than postcard-pretty descriptions. We all know what sunsets look like. But watching the sun go down while holding hands with someone special and sharing the moment, transforms that sunset into something quite different. To capture the sense of that moment in a story can make a setting a powerful tool in a writer’s hand. Setting becomes an important character, even the anchor to a plot. Think The English Patient, or The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. 7176906906_c6b979dd06

Readers of the Quartet feel captivated by Alexandria’s atmosphere. From the meshed Arab backstreets, from the elegance of L’Etoile or the Cecil Hotel to the hashish cafés of the slums or the sandy approaches to the Western Desert, all make the city a major and vivacious character in the story. Durrell takes his readers inside the mansions of rich cosmopolitans and diplomats, stifling attic bedrooms, brothels and pleasure pavilions by the sea. With all the intricacies of the story, it’s the city of Alexandria who takes center stage. A kaleidoscope of senses that transports the reader to a place they can connect even if they will never set foot on.

I was only vaguely aware of just how powerful setting can be when I started my Cold War novel Closing Time. Or I thought I was. The story started on the border between Hungary and Austria during the unforgiving months of winter. I thought I nailed it because I grew up not far from there and was familiar with the location. But when rejection letters arrived I knew I’d have to do better. More work to be done on that front.

I will take care to make setting a major character in my new novel. Boardrooms, offices and kitchen tables can only take you so far in a story. Readers want to be transported to where they haven’t been before and have little chance to go to. This too is a writer’s responsibility.

With that in mind I am combing through my own experiences of places that touched me in some way. Places that played a decisive role in how my life would evolve. The proverbial fork in the road. If a certain colleague would not have gotten a job at the office where I worked in Vienna, I would not have left for Canada when I did. Then I would never have met my first husband and had two sons, and later my second husband, and so on and so forth. I would never have been part of the 5 writers 5 novels 5 months group!

It’s maddening to speculate ‘what if’, to fathom the randomness and the big mystery of life.

Places and settings determine so much of our life. Timing too. I will try to give it the center stage it deserves in my writing. And have fun reminiscing.

6 thoughts on “Write what you know. Not?

    • Thanks, Andrea. This is becoming my favorite planning tool as well. I first decide on a location that intrigued me at some point, then think of the characters I intend to write about, and the plot often crystallizes from that.

  1. You are fantastic with setting Helga, and I agree it can (and often should) be a major ‘character’ in a great story. The challenging trick is to integrate it into plot so that the story you’re writing really couldn’t happen exactly the same way anywhere else but where you’ve set it. I find that some authors (even including popular published writers!) serve a mash-up of a plot plus a travelogue rather than really braiding them together. Maybe this demonstrates how hard it is to really do well.

    • Great dialogue, Silk. As I said in my reply to Andrea above, often a location comes first, and I already know the characters I want to use, so for me it’s a matter of integrating plot into my preferred setting and characters. I’ve only used this approach for the first time recently, and it seems to work for me.

  2. Setting is difficult to do well. There’s that omnipresent fine line between too little and too much. I tend to stick with places I know, even if only from a brief trip or from time spent in a nearby area. How well I’m doing, though, remains to be seen!

    • Thanks, JM. You are right, it is difficult. Too often settings read like cookie-cutter descriptions and it’s obvious the author copied the info from somewhere, not his/her own experience. As to how much setting to use, the fine line, I believe, is to draw it out a bit if it heightens suspense in a scene or underlines and supports a plot point.

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