Thursday, August 19, 2010

Should I write about Paris or Peoria?

The Anti-Stratfordian movement says William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him because he lacked the education, scholarship, travel and political involvement required to support the subjects, locations and themes in the work.

While I have no intention of opening the Shakespeare vs. Bacon can of worms here, the “lack of knowledge” argument in the debate shows us that the write-what-you-know advice for prospective authors has been around for a long time. This advice is not always heeded. After reading bestselling novels with high-stakes characters working in exotic locales, many of us are tempted to write about what we don’t know.

That is, we’d rather write about a fashion designer in Paris than a coach in Peoria.

Everyday People and Places

Great fiction confronts well-intentioned (usually), flawed protagonists with conflicts in rural and city settings that could be almost anywhere. If you know Paris or Tokyo, then by all means use them. If not, consider Peoria—or the town where you grew up or now reside.

Over-the-top soldiers of fortune, global industrialists, surgeons, and sports figures appear to be among the top protagonists of choice. Which of these are you? If the answer is none, then unless you know one of these people and can follow him around for months, perhaps your own job in “Peoria” will result in a more realistic main character in a more believable setting.

My recent protagonist teaches English at a small Midwestern college. It was an easy decision: I used to teach at a small college. I saw the ivy-covered buildings, quadrangles, students, aging tenured professors and absurd educational politics first hand. For intrigue and conflict, I added in some corrupt deans and administrators, a maintenance man who owned a rifle and was willing to use it to support the status quo, and a deranged ex-lover out for revenge. (Most of us can look at the nastiest people in our workplaces and imagine then ten times worse!)

Your town and your career probably have more to offer prospective readers than you think. One hard fact of life for writers is this: readers are smart enough to know whether you’re faking it or know what you’re writing about. You either have a feel for the location and the characters and their professions, or you don’t.

If you’ve traveled to or lived in Paris, you might stage a convincing crime on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées because your photographs and experiences will help you create realistic incident.

While my memories of a long-ago trip to Paris along with the knowledge gained from watching Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou careen around the city in The Da Vinci Code made me consider the location for travel scenes, my muse reminded me to write what I know. I know College Avenue in Tallahassee and the nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp because I grew up in the Florida panhandle. I don’t have to consult a tourist guidebook to learn what kinds of houses and stores are found along College or what kind of flora and fauna are in swamps southwest of town.

Your Neck of the Woods

Like it or hate it, you know the town where you grew up (or live now). You are linked to it by people and events. You know whether the neighborhoods there have 1990s homes or older Queen Anne and Craftsman houses. You know when the first flowers bloom in the spring and what the weather is like during the dog days August. The joys and hurts you experienced there are—from a writing perspective—icing on the cake.

Like the swamps near Tallahassee where I once camped and hiked, there are lakes, rivers, mountains and farmland near your hometown that you can describe better than, say, the forest of Fontainebleau or the gardens at Giverny. You already know the sights, sounds, roads, and recreational activities there and won’t have to research them heavily to make them come alive in your stories.

Modern-day novels seldom include page after page of description. Yet, details about jobs and locales are important. When characters are at work, they’re at specific places using tools and equipment to complete daily tasks. What should the reader see and hear when you show him the characters on these jobs or on trips to a nearby theme parks or resorts?

My hometown and your hometown may not be as exotic as Paris or Tokyo, but we know them. Most of us haven’t had unique careers. Instead, we know what it’s like to work as administrators, bankers, cooks, teachers, sales people, computer programmers and secretaries.

What we know makes good stories because the knowledge, experience, emotions, physical reactions and locations are natural to us and our thinking. The reality of our lives flows out of our pens as smoothly as the ink. What we know is the stuff that captures the reader’s attention and makes him believe our fiction is real.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, The Sun Singer and Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.