My early novels were all set in North West England, the area with which I am most familiar. I used towns that I knew but gave them different names, and in one novel I ‘transplanted’ one of my favourite Lakeland villages into a different part of the Lake District. Apart from the latter, the setting could actually have been anywhere as it was not particularly vital to the storyline. In the Lakeland novel, however, the storyline involved an issue which was specific to that area (and indeed was based loosely on an actual issue which had caused a lot of controversy in the area).
I was more comfortable writing about places I knew and, of course, I was writing in the pre-internet era, when research into ‘unknown’ places depended mainly on the written word (travelogues etc) and photographs.
What a difference the internet has made! When I started writing ‘The West Wing’ fan fiction, I was faced with having to write about places I didn’t know as well. I’d visited Washington DC several times, so I was fine with that, and an internet search found a wonderful site which showed the whole layout of every floor in the White House. But in one fanfic story (a spin-off from the series) I took the characters to Ireland and at that point I had only visited Ireland once (a day trip to Dublin). But again the internet was invaluable as I could explore Galway (both the city and the county) to my heart’s content, with instant access to maps, videos etc. In another story, the characters were in New Hampshire. I have never been there, but I have an internet friend who lives in NH, so I plied her with questions.
When I returned to writing novels, I dug out an unfinished story I had started years before. This story had originally been set in England but at some point I had decided to re-site it in America, with the heroine working at a college in Virginia. Heaven only knows why, because I knew nothing about American colleges! I found the names of some colleges (at the local library, I think) and then wrote to them for their prospectuses, which seemed to take ages to arrive. How much easier it was, when I picked up the story again, to ‘google’ for colleges and get a mass of detail about them.
The internet is a wonderful resource for the settings we use for our stories, and one of our Friday Friends recently gave a wonderful tip about using Google Earth and also the Google Streetcar Views. Excellent – at least for contemporary novels.
At the same time, I am still wary of making some very basic error when I am writing about places that I don’t know. I have read too many of these errors in novels and they always irritate me. One that caused me to laugh out loud was a story where someone crossed the road to reach the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. No mention of the eight lanes of traffic, all whizzing round at top speed, cutting in, overtaking etc. The hero would probably have been killed on the spot! It can be practical details like this which can trip us up.
And, for us Brits trying to write about America, there are other problems, not least the language difference! Even though I have visited the States several times and know to say elevator and not lift, sidewalk and not pavement etc, I have been picked up several times by my American friends when I have used a word or expression that would not be used by Americans.
Basically, I am saying that all kinds of problems can arise if you choose a setting with which you are not familiar and therefore, of course, far more research is needed!