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Thread: Novels in contemporary settings that the authors have never been to?

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    Elephant terrifel's avatar
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    Default Novels in contemporary settings that the authors have never been to?

    As one vastly ignorant of the professional fictioneering arts, I don't know whether this is the rule or the exception for successful authors. Is it possible to write, for example, a persuasive crime drama set in modern-day Los Angeles if one has never been west of the Mississippi? Do you really need to visit southern France in order to set a romance or mystery there?

    In many novels, the setting itself is so distinctive that it becomes a character in its own right. Can this sort of intimacy be persuasively faked through research, or are you just likely to embarrass yourself thoroughly?

    (For a creative writing class one time, for reasons which I can no longer recall, I wrote a novelette set mostly in Denver even though I had never been there, and embarrassed myself thoroughly.)
    Last edited by terrifel; 26 Oct 2010 at 03:45 PM. Reason: L.A. is west of the Missisissippi, he amended with throrough embarrassment.

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    Oliphaunt The Original An Gadaí's avatar
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    Terry- There was a controversy over a popular book a couple of years back that was set in Canada in the 1800s, the author was British and she'd never been in Canada prior to publication of the book. At the time however it was argued that all historic fiction has the same problem. I think, with adequate research, or by not saying too much, a person can evoke a place, setting without it being too ridiculous. If they can create a believable person from whole cloth I'm sure most good authors can create the illusion of familiarity with a city.

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    Head Heathen Katriona's avatar
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    I've read two where they could have done the slightest bit of research/adjustment and it would have been a huge improvement.

    One had as the protagonist a professor at my university, but he had her living in a crappy town half an hour away for no apparent reason. That one was widely ridiculed among those of us who went there.

    In the other, the author was purported to be from the Kansas City area, but even as directionally-challenged as I am, I knew she had her characters going the wrong way on the wrong interstates to get to her settings.

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    Oliphaunt
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    I imagine it would be a lot easier to write about a place you've been personally, but even then, there are bound to be nit-pickers. Research is the key.

    Also, I think it can be totally acceptible to take liberties with a setting for story reasons. You're writing a novel, not a travelogue.
    Last edited by Orual; 26 Oct 2010 at 05:56 PM.

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    The Queen Zuul's avatar
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    I don't believe Stephanie Meyer had ever been to Washington state before writing the first Twilight novel. Aside from "rain" and "trees" she really didn't show any vague understanding of the Pacific Northwest. The narrative keeps talking about how tiny Seattle is (the 15th largest metro area in America) and there's lamentations about the food. Now, there might be fewer fresh from the border Mexican places there than in Arizona but Washington is far from a culinary wasteland. The utter absence of Asians in the book was somewhat surprising, too, considering the area. They outnumber any other minority in Washington by a huge margin.

    But I don't think "writing an accurate portrayal of a small Pacific Northwest town" was high on her priorities when she began writing.
    So now they are just dirt-covered English people in fur pelts with credit cards.

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    Oliphaunt The Original An Gadaí's avatar
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    I just finished reading Phillip Roth's Nemesis and like so many of his other books he uses 1940s/50s Newark as its setting. I've heard about Chancellor Ave so many times in his books I'm going to have to visit it sometime. He describes Weequahic, Elizabeth, East Orange etc. numerous times in his books. However, I haven't the slightest idea what parts of the city he has fabricated or described inaccurately. It works for me, but I'm at a significant distance.

    With regard to Seattle in Twilight Zuul, is the narrative saying this or one of the characters? I can imagine someone moving from one city to another they're not used to complaining about how small a town it is, and how crap the food is, through ignorance.

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    Oliphaunt The Original An Gadaí's avatar
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    Nowadays too you've got streetview, so I think one could do a decent job of describing a town remote from personal experience with reasonable verisimilitude. I think in television they often get towns and cities completely wrong, especially when (like in an american show) they're purporting to be in a city in another country.

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    A Groupie Marsilia's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Zuul View post
    I don't believe Stephanie Meyer had ever been to Washington state before writing the first Twilight novel. Aside from "rain" and "trees" she really didn't show any vague understanding of the Pacific Northwest.
    I actually remember reading an interview somewhere in which she said that she actually looked up weather records on the Internet because she wanted a place where it rained a lot, and that's how she made the decision to set the series in Forks.
    So, I'll whisper in the dark, hoping you'll hear me.

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    Oliphaunt The Original An Gadaí's avatar
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    The person who wrote Leap Year obviously has never been in Ireland, well not in the last 75 years anyway.

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    A Groupie Marsilia's avatar
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    I think there's a service to the locals that people pay when they get a setting exactly right in a particular book. My mom used to read a lot of John Grisham books back in the '90s, and would talk about how she could populate his books (set primarily in small towns in the deep south) with people she'd known while married to my dad. It isn't even necessarily about turning left on Third Street to get to the bank, it's more about the population, the prevailing attitudes of the area, and the general "feel" of a place.
    So, I'll whisper in the dark, hoping you'll hear me.

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    A Groupie Marsilia's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by The Original An Gadaí View post
    The person who wrote Leap Year obviously has never been in Ireland, well not in the last 75 years anyway.
    Well, Ireland isn't a real place, anyway. It's a magical land that was completely made up by some author or poet, back when storytelling was young.
    So, I'll whisper in the dark, hoping you'll hear me.

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    Oliphaunt The Original An Gadaí's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Marsilia View post
    I think there's a service to the locals that people pay when they get a setting exactly right in a particular book. My mom used to read a lot of John Grisham books back in the '90s, and would talk about how she could populate his books (set primarily in small towns in the deep south) with people she'd known while married to my dad. It isn't even necessarily about turning left on Third Street to get to the bank, it's more about the population, the prevailing attitudes of the area, and the general "feel" of a place.
    Now I've never talked to a contemporary Newarkian(?) about it but I think Roth really evokes the time and place, a sense of it, in a believable fashion. As you say, the feel might be more important, than forensic roadmapping etc.

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    Prehistoric Bitchslapper Sarahfeena's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Marsilia View post
    I think there's a service to the locals that people pay when they get a setting exactly right in a particular book. My mom used to read a lot of John Grisham books back in the '90s, and would talk about how she could populate his books (set primarily in small towns in the deep south) with people she'd known while married to my dad. It isn't even necessarily about turning left on Third Street to get to the bank, it's more about the population, the prevailing attitudes of the area, and the general "feel" of a place.
    Yeah, evoking a mood, getting the characters right, that stuff is tough if you don't have personal experience. Getting the geographical stuff right is hard enough, but at least you can research that. Haha, I do remember a book I read once that was set here in Chicago and had a character driving on the "JFK" expressway. Never ever ever have I heard it called that, it's called the Kennedy. Always. I've read books before where they have people driving the wrong direction to get from one place to another, and stuff like that, but that was the most obvious gaffe I've seen. Come on, lady, ask a Chicagoan!

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    Prehistoric Bitchslapper Sarahfeena's avatar
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    Dupey dupe.
    Last edited by Sarahfeena; 27 Oct 2010 at 10:20 AM.

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    A Dude Peeta Mellark's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Marsilia View post
    I think there's a service to the locals that people pay when they get a setting exactly right in a particular book. My mom used to read a lot of John Grisham books back in the '90s, and would talk about how she could populate his books (set primarily in small towns in the deep south) with people she'd known while married to my dad. It isn't even necessarily about turning left on Third Street to get to the bank, it's more about the population, the prevailing attitudes of the area, and the general "feel" of a place.
    This is a really good point. I might have a smug moment of "oh, they're going the wrong direction to get to XYZ" if a small geographical detail is wrong, but I don't much care about that. I just want it to feel right.

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