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.


  1. I vote for Peoria! While I'm not adamant about the "write what you know" rule, I am in favor of authenticity and art. By that I mean that exotic locales and larger-than-life characters are most often employed for the sake of manipulation and gaudy entertainment. Lies, not truth. Dollars, not meaning. I'm thinking of how one of the finest novels ever written did not need fancy people or places: To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Let's stay home!

  2. Hi Brent, thanks for the comment. I agree about the larger-than-life characters and locations: they often smell of ramped-up writing for $$$. They don't have to be, but often that's often the case.


  3. Many writers in the thriller and mystery genre never visit the far-flung locales they include in their novels. One bestselling author had an assistant whose job was the research cities and create "location settings" for him to use in his novels. I think that's a bit of rip-off for the reader and the writer. I just returned from a research trip to Paris where my novel "Conquering Venus" and its sequel are set. I would never have been able to write about the city with any authenticity if I had not been there numerous times over the years.

  4. I used Paris in my example partly because I followed your trip on Facebook; it's an example of what (I think) a writer needs to do if they want to have a realistic setting. I'm not surprised to hear about the research assistants. It's one thing to request the help of experts, but quite another to have them doing a bit too much of the work.


  5. I disagree. Especially in this age of the Internet, you can researcha locale very thoroughly and write about it convincingly. It's a matter of doing your homework and having the skill to write convincingly. If you can create willing suspension of disbelief in your readers, you can write about visiting the moon if you want to. Yes, writing about places you know well is admittedly easier, but it isn't the only way to write.

  6. The Internet has made a lot of difference in the research habits of writers. One used to have to rely on printed materials (possibly out of date) and writing letters (that often went unanswered) to venues and libraries.

    I started thinking about all this when I read yet another novel featuring Highlanders speaking Lallans (the widely known Scot's dialect) from the Lowlands rather than the correct Highland English with a touch of Gaelic.

    Kind of made me wonder why the writers picked places and cultures they knew little or nothing about for their stories. But you're point is well taken, Smoky. One CAN get around having to travel.


  7. Er, obviously the word I intended was "your," not "you're."

  8. Smoky, what you say is true, but the Internet can't give you the mental stimulation of physically being in a place -- the sounds, the smells, the textures. My trip back to Paris over the summer allowed me to see things not even the Internet can't replicate -- the way the sunlight plays over the Seine in the late afternoon; the way the sounds of the city disappear gradually as you go further into Jardin des Plantes. I need that sense memory for the Venus trilogy because the city is such an integral part of the story, But that's just me.


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