You Are Here

Interior location – my bedroom, Flat 1. Budapest, Hungary -photo Nannette Vinson

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.

And a surprising literary setting can make your story all the stronger. Agatha Christie stories work so well because in every quaint vicarage with its lace table cloths, jam, Jerusalem and glasses of sherry – there’s a body under the table.

A New York Street

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.

A picture from home… A cave. Dunmore East. Co. Waterford, Ireland.


About suehealy

Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy's work has been supported and developed by Arts Council England, Dublin's Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and Waterford Corporation/Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Her debut stage production, 'Brazen Strap' showed at the King’s Head Theatre. Sue was also a finalist for the 2016 Eamon Keane Playwriting Prize, the 2016 Nick Darke Award and the 2016 Old Vic 12. In previous years, Sue's nine radio dramas have broadcast on BBC Radio 4, WLRfm, KCLR96fm; she has also won the Sussex Playwrights’ Award, presented in the Festival of Contemporary European Drama and has had staged readings of her work in London, Norwich, Brighton and Cornwall. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, Sue’s prose won seven national prizes including the Molly Keane Memorial Award, BBC Opening Lines, Escalator Prize and HiSSAC Award. 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 Deputy Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

7 responses to “You Are Here

  • Tony McFadden

    As far as “writing what you know” when is comes to setting, I have, until now, only set my stories in places I’ve actually been. I’ve been to a LOT pr places, so this hasn’t been that difficult (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Australian Malaysia, Indonesia, London, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, LA to name but a few).

    This book, though, I’ve set in Pyongyang and surrounding countryside. I haven’t been there. It’s extremely unlikely I ever will.

    But I’ve watch almost 50 hours of YouTube videos, spent entire weekends poring over Google Earth and read half a dozen North Korea-based blogs and right now I think I’m as close to knowing about the place as I can be without actually going there.

    The next one, though, it’s going to be based in one of the dozens of places I’ve actually been.

  • kathils

    Excellent post with some very good points. 🙂

  • playfulpups

    I do have a tendency to write only what I know, for fear of mistakes. Once in a while, I do step outside of those walls and venture into territories virtually unknown. But, I’m a lazy researcher- I’d rather be writing! So, alas, back to writing what I know. It just motivates me to know more!

  • Christopher C. Randolph

    More great advice. The thing I like most about your blog,Sue, is the practical, oft neglected basics that need to be remembered.




    I get a real buzz out of books that are embedded in real places. Ian Rankins Rebus are a joy to me because I know Edinburgh. I visited Cephalonia on the back of Captain Corellis mandolin and Sinai and Bruges after books by Dorothy Dunnett. Currently reading a book set in Hamburg….:)

  • Susannah Bianchi

    I love your posts. They never fail to inspire me.

  • eof737

    I do write what I know as I enjoy that porcess more… I’m finally catching up on blogs! I’ll read/“Like” blog posts, but will come back to comment on other/future posts. Thanks for your patience! 🙂

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