Location, location, location

Are you here?

A literary setting refers to the landscape and the people/characters that fill it.

The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.

Or here?

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About suehealy

Multi award winning Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by the Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, the Heinrich Boll Association and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Her 2016 play ‘Brazen Strap’ ran at the King’s Head Theatre, funded by Arts Council England. Her work has also shown at the Hackney Attic and Etcetera Theatres in London. Sue’s nine radio dramas have broadcast on BBC Radio 4, WLRfm, KCLR96fm. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, she spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. Presently, she is London-based, researching a PhD on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

8 responses to “Location, location, location

  • Isabella Tyler

    Great post! Some really good advice here. Writing what you know does seem boring, probably because the chances are that everyone you know does more or less the same thing. But you can put remarkable things in unremarkable settings!

  • sueannbowlingauthor

    Even in scifi you’d better know what you’re talking about to make a realistic world. I modeled Falaron in Tourist Trap on Pleistocene North America (which it was supposedly terraformed from) and as an atmospheric scientist with major interest in climatic history I knew that period and landscape and had a researcher in Pleistocene animals double-check me.

  • Paula

    I’ve created a couple towns north of San Francisco, complete with housing tracts, street names, business plazas, restaurants, etc., for my romance novels. This way I don’t have to worry anyone will Google map my stuff and criticize my directions (which is not a strong point). Now I can move on to plots. Ugh!

  • redjim99

    I think I have broken some rules here, on the up side it does give me somewhere to go from to expand my writing about locations. Now I just need to decide where I am going to be.

    Interesting piece, thanks,

    Jim

    PS. Is that Budapest in the first pic?

  • CJ Allen

    I am an aspiring writer and is almost always boggled with the question “which location should I use?” Your post have definitely provided some clarity for me. I was always concern that using locations familiar to me might be somewhat boring so thanks for you explanation of the benefits in using familiar places …Helps a LOT

  • Jeannette Monahan

    Fiction is not my thing, but I have been thinking recently that I need to familiarize myself with more fiction-writing techniques, especially if I’m going to write non-fiction for kids. A timely post, thank you, and a reminder for me to get the show on the road!

  • MyDomingo

    where it all started – writing what I know… great one.

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