Sensing place: the advantages and limits of writing where you’ve been

I’ve been back from Italy over a week now, but rather than do a travelogue sort of post here, I think it’s more appropriate to muse about how travel and writing mesh. Somewhere in the middle of the pile that tumbles out when you open the “writing advice” closet are a cluster of maxims stating that you need to have been to a place you intend to describe in words. They should probably be filed under the unforgivably vague “Write what you know,” which (along with other stupidly broad bits of formula like “Kill your darlings”) even many people who are not writers can quote. I tend to think that “write what you know” has been used to suppress fictional efforts that threaten to venture beyond the mundane, and has produced far too many sagas of suburbia and/or prep school, but it’s not a bad place to start if you turn it around: know what you write.

Which, translated into practical terms, pretty much amounts to “do your research.” (Even if you’re writing about your own life, doing your research is imperative. You don’t know everything about even a limited piece of the world.) So, how does this relate to understanding the places you write about? Do you have to visit every place you set a book or a scene in? Do you have to live there, because visiting isn’t enough? My answer, as always, is “it depends.”

I will admit here that I haven’t been to every place I write about in my books. I’m not going to say which places I’ve been to and which I haven’t, for the selfish reason that detailed admissions of that sort tend to invite criticism. But I will defy the obligation to trundle around snapping photos and visiting archives where it’s not necessary, especially since we don’t all have unlimited research budgets (or any research budgets at all), and I think in particular cases not visiting a place may even be better, or at least waiting to do so till after writing about it. I’m going to break this down using two factors: degree of immersion, or how thoroughly the characters need to inhabit the setting; and depth of field, especially as it relates to historical distance.

The more immersion, and the closer a setting is to the present, the more necessity there is for deep understanding on the writer’s part. So, if you’re setting a novel in the present day (or the relatively recent past) in a country or city in which you haven’t been a resident, you’re going to have a hard time achieving authenticity unless you’ve spent significant time there. All sorts of aspects of geography, lifestyle, language, and just sense of place are likely to fail to come across if you’re unfamiliar with your setting, and those three days you spent there once on a vacation are probably not enough. A real research trip of a few weeks, with the plot of the novel in mind, might do the job (especially since the internet is available for additional research), but you’re likely better off living there for a while. Can’t afford that? Maybe your hometown can produce better stories than you think.

On the other hand, if your characters are just going to pop into town for a chapter or two, you may be able to get away with working from home and using the web and the accounts of other people to layer on a quick atmospheric wash. It might be worth having someone who does live there read the result before it’s published. (As someone who’s lived in the Washington, DC area for thirty years, I can say that we all find it amusing to pick apart the errors in books where someone turns up here briefly to interact with legislators or lobbyists or spies, and TV is even more fun. I don’t mean the “federal government doesn’t function that way” errors; I mean the ones where you drive from the Virginia suburbs to Baltimore in half an hour, or possess absurd views of iconic buildings from your office window. I’m sure this is true for every city in the world, but Washington is more prone to drive-by plot points than many other places. But I digress.)

Historical fiction (or time-travel fiction) is a different matter. Given that we don’t actually have time machines (and the government would probably restrict use of them if we did), it’s impossible to “know what you write” if you’re writing about the past; you can’t live in or visit a year long before your own birth. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to travel to the setting of a book you’re writing, if you can – but note that historical settings have a tendency to disappear or be irreparably altered, and in some cases it might be better to do the research first, write a draft, and only then go visit, so that you have the layer of the past firmly established in your mind before it’s contaminated by the present. I’ll note, for example, that the Bourne Heath setting for much of Time for Tea simply doesn’t exist any longer; it’s been swallowed by Bournemouth and Southbourne, and nothing much remains but the view of the horizon out to sea. And while London still exists, and I found it useful to walk the route that George and Olivia take to get the timing right, the streets and buildings have changed so greatly that viewpoints don’t match at all. In these cases it might even be dangerous to the authenticity of a work to spend too much time immersed in a modern-day setting, and doing research becomes even more important to counteract what you’ve taken in.

Here, by way of example, is a photo I snapped of the street (or fondamenta, because it’s by a canal) outside our Venice hotel.

2014-10-10 venice hotel street

It’s quiet and pleasant and atmospheric, but if I wanted to write about Venice in one of my books (and I’d love to) I’d have to remember what it was like to walk down the street, and then mentally block out all the modern additions (motorboats, antennas, cell phones ringing, electric streetlights, recycling collections, probably the railing by the canal, etc.), find out how long ago the houses and the church and the bridge were built, discover how smelly the water was and what the lighting would have been like, and so forth. And once I had all those details in mind, what would be left of my experience, and what value would it have? Well… some.

Writers talk a lot about sensing a place, breathing in atmosphere; it sounds a bit wacko or pretentious and a lot of the time it probably is, but there’s something to it. Places do feel like themselves, as well as looking and sounding and smelling like themselves, and it’s great to be able to stand somewhere and breathe it all in – the problem being of course that you tend to get bumped into by tourists or pickpockets, or asked to step off the grass, or bothered by waiters who want you to place an order. And we don’t sense places just for our own benefit; we do it so we can communicate what we’re feeling to readers. If you’re writing about your own experience, or the experience of someone similar to you, then this “taking in” is immeasurably valuable (and so are the interruptions to it). If you’re trying to create the reality of someone who’s not you, though, and who’s in the same place under very different circumstances, what ends up mattering most is a sort of translation of experience, along with a mass of specific and carefully-researched detail. It’s the combination that turns into a book, or a scene in a book: not just the textbook facts nor the half-understanding that’s like conversing in hastily-studied Italian (whereupon the person you’re talking to switches to English because it’s easier. Huh, I think there’s an analogy there).

I could have written a scene set in Venice (Dr. Sinensis and Rutger have tea! Or probably coffee. In their past, because Venice will be completely waterlogged by the 2170s, alas) without having ever visited, by reading other people’s evocative travel literature or fiction and looking at lots of paintings and/or photographs depending on the desired year. And I bet I could convince you that I knew what I was talking about, because a) I can write, and b) my characters would be discovering the setting along with me. I am not sure that three days’ acquaintance with the place really gives me an authoritative advantage over no days (especially since we visited several other Italian cities subsequently and my memories are already slipping away). But snippets of experience are nonetheless valuable: the sound of church bells ringing on all sides, a little off-time with each other; the way a calle seems to narrow as you walk down it, threatening to trap you before its end; the sight of a workman’s boat full of construction materials, translatable into another time but not another place, because Venice is a city of water and always has been; dragging suitcases over stepped bridges; drinking wine standing up in the street; watching a small dog trot along ahead of its owner, knowing all the twists and turns by heart. I’ve got enough imagination and enough deductive ability to come up with all that without having experienced it, and I couldn’t use any of it without a lot of additional research propping it up, but still… there’s nothing quite like being there.

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One thought on “Sensing place: the advantages and limits of writing where you’ve been

  1. lesvoyagesdumonde says:

    Really interesting read about travel writing! I hate to admit it but when I write about travel I too tend to write about the sights, smells and atmosphere I think it just naturally comes with the territory

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