Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writing unfamiliar scenes

Writing unfamiliar scenes has always been a problem for me. It’s not just the general location, it's the small details as well as the whole atmosphere of a place.

In the 1960’s a film called ‘A Kind of Loving’ was filmed partly in my home town of Preston in Lancashire. We actually watched some of the filming in the town centre. When we went to the see the film at the cinema, there was one point where a bus stopped in front of the town hall. Immediately you sensed a reaction from everyone in the cinema – ‘Buses never stop there!’ Suddenly the illusion was destroyed, people focused on the inaccuracy.

That moment has stayed with me over 40 years later. Get a fact wrong about a place with which people are familiar and all credibility is destroyed.

I’ve read location errors many times since and they always bug me. In ‘The West Wing’ fan fiction, someone looks out of a window of the White House and sees "the Washington Monument and beyond that the traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue." Wrong, the Monument is south of the White House, PA Avenue is north. Come on, with proper research that error would be easy enough to avoid.

In a story about Galway City, a car pulls up outside a shop on Quay Street. Wait a minute, that street is pedestrianised, no cars allowed. In this case, maybe research won’t reveal that, but knowledge of the area does.

I could give you countless examples of location errors I have read in books.

So that makes me wary. If I want to set my story in a ‘real’ place, I have to research it carefully. I can’t assume that readers won’t know the place I’m writing about. The internet has made research easier, and – wonderfully - google earth/street view can show me what it’s like to drive down a street or through a town.

But can all the internet resources tell me what it’s actually LIKE to live in an English village, or a small town in America, or a farmhouse in Tuscany? Can they give me the atmosphere of a place? I think not

I can imagine, but I find it very difficult to write about it unless I have that certainty in my mind that I’m getting it right. I’m still aware of those people who, when reading it, might say, ‘Buses never stop there.’ Inaccurate location details annoy me, and I don’t want to annoy my readers.

So what do I do? I have to base my books on places I know. I wrote a fan fiction story once where the characters visited Galway in Ireland. I’d never been there. I researched it, looked at photos and videos of Galway and wrote it. Then I went there, and changed the story. Because now I can really follow my characters as they stroll through the streets from the Cathedral to Eyre Square, now I can I describe their drive through the Connemara mountains. Once it becomes real to me, I can show it through my characters’ eyes.

Yes, it limits me to writing about places I have visited, but at least I know I’m getting it right.


  1. Well said, Paula. I almost always try to write what I know. In my first three books I've used familiar locations for the settings. This way, I know I'm getting it right.

    Research can help a lot, but there's nothing like having actually been to a place to make your writing more authentic.

  2. So true, Paula. I hate seeing grammar errors, too.

  3. Diana Gabaldon once wrote that she traveled to sites in Scotland after she published the bulk of her Claire and Jamie stories, and was surprised to find her imagination had conjured details pretty accurately. It would be nice to have that talent...

  4. I have never been to Spain but set two books there. I have read quite a bit about Spain so had an idea but although the books were set in Andalusia, I did not name a particular place. Atmosphere is more difficult, but having been to the South of France and Italy I think I managed to get that right. Atmosphere, as well, I think comes from character and I think people see "atmosphere" differently. For example how many times has someone told you a place has great atmospohere, only for you to get there and find out it doesn't seem atmospheric to you!

    I believe you have to get the small things right first. I have written four novels about medieval and only one of those had "real" places but I took care that the lifestyle was accurate. However, every writer will have different ideas and perhaps no way is the right one.