Apr 4, 2012

E is for: Exotic - writing a place you've never been

(The lovely Taryn Albright interviewed me re: revision techniques on her blog today. Check it out: http://tarynalbright.com)

Write what you know.

View of the old city, Jerusalem
We've all heard that, right? Fortunately, few writers take that to mean 'write only what you've experienced'. Because if we did that, Michael Crichton would never have written Jurassic Park. Hunger Games would still be an idea. Lewis and Tolkien would never have started The Inklings.

So what does that phrase really mean? IMO, it means that if you don't know it, and you want to write about it, do some research. Or even if you have been to your desired setting before but it's been years, you'll need to brush up on certain things. Check out this list:

Weather. Use local weather to influence your mood.  If the scene was happy or romantic, the sun was shining or setting. For murder/mayhem - fog/sandstorm/rain, depending on your setting's climate.

Speech patterns. Check idioms and regional phrases - do people say 'some' instead of 'very?' How would someone from Australia say, "That's really cool" ? Authenticity will deepen the appeal of your writing.

Architecture. What's the typical home look like in your location? What makes it unique - high roofline, arched windows, cedar siding, big porches? Is there a widely known building/location you could write a scene around?

Local customs. Do people kiss each cheek when greeting each other? Do they kick off their shoes before entering a stranger's house? Maybe there's a favorite bumpersticker a lot of people from one area have. (Where I live, it's "Alaska Girls Kick A**" among others....) How could you work those customs into your writing?

Food. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, the same is true for a reader. Tell us everything about a meal - the scents, the flavors, the textures and colors - and we're right there with you. Everybody loves a good meal. Think: Under the Tuscan Sun. Mmmmmmm....if you can make it work with your plot, go for it.

Clothing. I hesitated to add this last bc seriously, nobody walks around naked even in fiction, but I think clothing is an important part of setting - especially if you write anything but contemporary. From Katniss to Scarlett O'Hara, what our characters wear says a lot about what's happening to them and when.

What have I missed? What do you add to make your setting addictive?

12 comments:

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Hmm, I was going to ask if you'd been to Israel on an archeological dig or if you were just a kick-a** researcher. :) I tend to write what I know right now, just because life is so busy I don't want to take the time for tons of heavy research. Someday I'd love to write historical fiction and really dig in, though (when the kids are older). Great post, Melodie!

Kyra Lennon said...

Excellent tips! I am writing a place I have never been for my WIP, and it never occurred to me to check out regional dialects, which is quite silly of me, because that seems like an obvious thing to do lol!

Kimberlee Turley said...

Sometimes I use Google maps to visit places I've never been. Now that might not work someplace exotic, but the History Channel might be the next best thing.

Liv said...

If you're writing historical, it can help to read things that were written at the time you're writing. You can pick up color and atmosphere that way.

Lynn Proctor said...

great tips and great ones from your comments--nice post

Iliadfan said...

This is what I love most about reading historical and fantasy fiction - those genres tend to delve more deeply into setting and cultures. Nice post!

Andrew Leon said...

Research is very important to get your facts straight. However, I don't really think that statement "write what you know" is about facts. It's about experiences. In other words, you can't write about what it feels like to starve if you've never gone hungry. In other words, go out and experience things so that you are able to write about those things with understanding.

S. L. Hennessy said...

I'm definitely a fan of the senses in writing - see, taste, touch...It helps me make a new place feel real. Great post and and happy A-Z blogging!

Kylie said...

Great tips! Has me thinking about how sometimes new eyes notice things that the familiar may overlook just because they are so familiar.

Carrie-Anne said...

I write a lot of stuff set outside of America (20th century historical), so I research things like street names, city neighborhoods, local landmarks, things like that. Alas, I've never been to any of the European countries I've written about, though I have been to Israel thrice so far. (Some of the characters in my handwritten magnum opus are now in Israel, in the 1990s and beyond.) As a linguophile, I also love sprinkling in words and phrases in characters' native languages, such as Russian, Estonian, Hungarian, German, Dutch, and French.

Nicole said...

Nice tips! I love world-building and imagining places I've never been. It's a great escape.

Lisa L. Regan said...

Great tips! I use the street view of Google maps too and spend quite a long time touring. It can be time consuming but shows me things I couldn't see otherwise.