What Makes a Place Real to You?

I am in Ireland, and if all the planning and fantasizing hold, that should be true for a while.

I’ve been traveling to foreign countries since I was in college and after, with and without friends or relatives. I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and seeing new places. I’ve even enjoyed trying to make myself understood in a foreign language, or trying to figure out what other people were saying.

But it never occurred to me that I was learning about how to write.

When we live in one country—be it country, state or town—there are characteristics they share. Yes, some have mountains and bears, others have skyscrapers and subway systems, but there are fundamentals that are consistent. Like how to find a television channel. How to make a phone call. How to plug in an appliance and make it work. How to drive a car (on the right side!).

I found that in the past when I’d traveled I hadn’t really paid attention to the details, but now that I’m making Ireland my home—and writing about it—I have to. Little things like changing a lightbulb (I still haven’t figured that out). Why is there a row of dashed yellow lines on the left side of the road? (Assuming, of course, that I’d already figured out that I was supposed to be driving on the left.) Oh, I’m supposed to turn on an electrical outlet before I plug something into it? And most of my electronics won’t work unless I use an adapter plug, which I may not have remembered to bring. And there are lots more examples, like when you go to a pharmacy to get a simple antacid and want Tums, and what you find on the shelf are Rennies. Rennies?

And it’s not just things. Sometimes it’s how people talk to each other. How to start a conversation with a stranger (most people are usually more than willing). Or how to figure out which of six or eight kinds of flour or sugar in the supermarket will let you cook something simple? Assuming you can figure out how to turn on the stove or the oven at all? Oh, and the man at the front door is the electric meter reader, who expects to come into your house and do his job. Haven’t seen one of those in a very long time.

I do have a point buried in here somewhere. When we as writers write, we are often creating an imaginary world, or at least tinkering with a world we’re familiar with. We are creating a setting for an equally imaginary population of characters. And to make either of those happen, we have to pay attention to what we see and hear in the real world.

We have to create a world that is both familiar to readers and interesting enough to keep them reading. To do that you have to choose which details to include or omit, both large and small. Of course you could make the whole thing up, but I’ve read books where I would say the author had never even seen the place he or she was writing about—and it shows.

It’s a delicate balance, but readers will probably notice if the author is writing a book with a foreign setting with a guidebook in one hand, and the experience of reading will suffer. Not that you should overwhelm your readers with lots of details, just to show you’ve done your homework. You have to include just enough to make the place real.

Writers, how to you handle unfamiliar settings, or do you avoid them as much as possible? Readers, do you believe the authors’ descriptions? How much detail is too much?

(I’d send you scenic pictures, but it’s been raining too much for good shots. I don’t even know which cattle grazing in the field across the road are male and which are female. But I will do better!)


11 Thoughts

  1. I mentioned to an audience yesterday, Sheila, that we writers are all voyeurs, but learning how to filter what we soak up is a different question!

  2. As a reader, I don’t have to have a lot of detail — just enough to get the location set in my mind. If the setting is in my home state or it’s a place I’ve been, it better be correct.

  3. I always think of research (or immersion in a setting) as an iceberg. You may know tons but only the tip is visible to the reader. But somehow the weight of all that is behind it makes itself known. And part two of this, is the telling detail. For example, it might be the earthy aroma of the dying woods or the bitter nip in the air or the rustle of dry leaves while shuffling along. (can you tell it’s fall in NH?) I love being transported somewhere while reading through sensory details. And what fun to live in Ireland, Sheila! One of my favorite activities is to go to a grocery store in a foreign place. The packaging and food choices are such a window into culture.

  4. My husband was in the military for 24 years, so we lived overseas – in Germany and Guam – and I enjoyed figuring out how things worked there and how to communicate. It can be fun or interesting (try to explain what cream cheese is when neither of you speak more than a few words of the other’s language) and always makes for a good story later.
    I do object to people writing about what they don’t know or didn’t visit – even famous writers get it wrong, and it’s annoying if you have been there or lived there. Someone famous wrote in a book that a submarine entered the harbor at the capital city of Guam in their book, and didn’t research enough to know that it was too shallow there and that the sub base was halfway down the island. Sticks out like a sore thumb.

  5. Reading just enough of the detail of the setting & location is enough to make my mind see & wonder.

  6. When I wrote my story for the New Orleans Bouchercon anthology, I knew I’d never be able to do New Orleans justice as a setting, which is why I relocated my protagonist to Pittsburgh.

    Now I have a contract for a historical and even though I’m quite familiar with Buffalo, NY (since I grew up near there), I’m finding there’s a lot of research that goes into creating a familiar setting in a different time!

  7. I’m a very visual reader. I see what I’m reading. Obviously, good description is necessary for me. I don’t care if a real location has to be altered to fit the story, but don’t make it something impossible. I once read a book where people were driving to Machu Picchu. Nope. Can’t be done. And that is well known by anyone who has traveled there.

  8. Sheila, you are so right. Creating a setting in a foreign country requires more than a tourist’s knowledge. And still we might not get everything right. Both our protagonists are American, telling the story in their own words. They don’t always get things right either, which creates interesting complications at times. Have fun in Ireland. Wish I were there!

  9. I tend to believe an author’s description unless I know exactly what they are supposed to be talking about. I once read a book with a scene set in my town that got the freeway completely wrong.

    If it slows down the story, it’s too much. Details should set the scene and do nothing else.

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