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Setting a novel somewhere you've never been

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

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CommaSplice

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Today, the pesky MC who's been hanging out in my head for a few months finally told me what she wants: She's tracking down her brother, who is in Phoenix, Arizona.

Problem: I've never been to Phoenix. Never even been *close*, unless you count the time when I was just a kid and we went to the Grand Canyon. Even then, the closest we got was Flagstaff, and I slept through all that anyway.


So, any tips for a writer whose only experience so far is writing about imaginary cities?


EDIT: To make this a more general discussion, let's widen the question to "What makes the setting of a novel realistic?" Is it possible to successfully set your story in a (real) place you've never been and still pull off a vivid setting?
 
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Shakesbear

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Find a really good guide book that has information about the history and topography of the place. Go to Google images and look at lots of images of the place. Find out if there is a food associated with the place, if there is get the recipe cook and eat said food - noting the smell and taste for use in the WIP,
 

CheshireCat

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Find TV shows or a few movies set in the general area and watch them. (HGTV often has House Hunters and shows like that set in Phoenix.)

Google "Phoenix" and get the basic facts.

Then wing it.

That's what I've done my whole career.



 

jjacobs

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You can also ask people you know have been there about the location. BTW, I live in Phoenix, so if you need to know anything, feel free to PM me.
 

maestrowork

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Why not just buy a ticket and fly to Phoenix for a weekend? ;)

But really, you don't have to have been a place to set a story there.

And the Internet (and library) is full of information. Plus people who came from Phoenix... do some interviews.

The setting is only going to as bad as the writer's own laziness and lack of imagination and research.


Hey, I set my story in 1941 South East Asia (in the jungles). Talk about foreign places. I do okay.
 
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K. Taylor

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Phoenix is HOT. But does have a nice convention center. And it surprised me that not everyone has AC, or even fans in every room.

I wouldn't even think of living in Southern CA without AC, let alone Phoenix!
 

justAnotherWriter

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Google Earth is an amazing tool for using settings you've never been to, and even those you have, to get things right. When I say it takes a boat 3 days to sail at 12 knotts from one place to another, I want that to be correct. When I say my characters go for a walk on a forrest path near the beach and come out in a scenic park with fieldstone walls and terraced gardens, I want that to be exactly what is there in the real world.

Between 3D tiltable maps, local photos and videos and all kinds of measuring tools, it's something I wouldn't want to write without.
 

JoNightshade

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Visit some community websites (ie, check out the community calendar) and some tourist websites to give you an idea of how it's seen from the inside and the outside. Why do people go there? Why do people live there? What's special about the place?
 

firedrake

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i live just outside Phoenix.
Check the local news channels for video footage;
Also agree about checking local websites.


KT is right, it's bloody hot, really bloody hot. You really need a/c in the summer...it's hell.

There are a few AW members who live in AZ, you could post some questions in the Story/Research thread thingie too.
 

MissAimee

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I'm about 3 hours south of Pheonix, and I-10 well pretty much take you to any freeways in the area. I have to agree by checking out local tv stations.
 

Nick Blaze

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"So, any tips for a writer whose only experience so far is writing about imaginary cities?"

Plenty. Surely some have been mentioned already, but obviously books set in that city, town, state, or country is a great idea. Other tips would be to track somebody down who lived there and interview them. This is a little harder, but usually a lot more informative. You could also make up a fictional town in or near the area, so that people realize it is based in a real-life place, the story itself is not.


"EDIT: To make this a more general discussion, let's widen the question to "What makes the setting of a novel realistic?" Is it possible to successfully set your story in a (real) place you've never been and still pull off a vivid setting? "

The answer to the last quest is "yes", but it is very difficult. Almost as difficult as basing your novel after a historical person and then trying to capture his personality in the novel when you've never met the person. As for the first, who truly needs realism? I'm sure there are some novels written where Boston, Mass. was turned into a zero gravity trampoline chamber with two rivals trying to kill each other. Realism is not necessary to pull off a plot, in my opinion. A good plot and good character development are much more necessary than realism.
 

kaitie

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I agree with Google Earth as a valuable tool. I used it to look up hotels and what not. Part of my story is set in places I've been (the whole latter half they're running around the Midwest), but a large chunk is set in New York City, which I spent all of three days in something like five or six years ago. Needless to say, I didn't remember much.

I used lots of Wikipedia, Google, and MapQuest driving directions and what not (to make sure my distances were logical and I didn't have a character driving 20 hours in five, for instance). Though, having said that, most of the actual setting description was based on places I've been that are kind of generic. I take the trains all the time where I live now, and I based the trains on that. Maybe not the best idea, but similar enough I figure it works (I did look up to find out how tickets, etc. work, however). I put one scene in a farmhouse in mid-state New York. I've never been there, but I've been to quite a few farm houses elsewhere, and based it on those.

The hardest part for me was having a scene that's told in flashback that takes place in Iraq. I wrote different people who had been there and looked at maps, etc., and read as much as I could. I agree that in cases like that, asking a local was a great choice. Though watch what you ask. Don't just say, "What's it like to live there?" Ask specifics. For instance, I wanted to know specifically about things such as smells, weather, temperature. Think about the specific type of imagery that you're interested in. I'd also ask if there's anything that makes the place unique. For instance, I had a friend who lived in Colorado and they had scorpions everywhere. I'd have never thought of that before, but it's the kind of detail that could be an interesting touch to add to a story.
 

Priene

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I remember a British writer talking about a lecture he'd given in Minneapolis where someone said tell me, what exactly does a Minneapolis accent sound like? The writer had given a character one without checking there was such a thing. But the worst that's going to happen if you invent stuff is that someone will bring it up. Do some research, check as best you can and then wing it.
 

Noumenon

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I've been using Google Map to find out a bit about Washington D.C. recently. For example, I needed an address using the word "place", so I searched "place, Washington D.C." (duh) to see what showed up. I got a handful of options, and with Ggl Street Map I could drop in and have a look around from the ground in some cases too. My next step was to Google anything interesting in the area to see what popped up - I found Wikipages or dedicated websites containing info, pictures, lots of little goodies.

Having said all this, the project I did this for doesn't demand rigorous research - quite the opposite really - so any failures of the process won't cause it much damage or me to lose much sleep; but I think you can get a decent foothold on an area like this, and you may find things that you can then look into more deeply.
 

Lifelongdagger

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To have an idea of what the buildings/houses are like, try Estate Agents/Real Estate Agents websites. Quite often they have interior photographs readily available.

Ian
 

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Firstly I'd say 'why Phoenix?'

Wouldn't it make more sense to set it somewhere you do know?

If the answers no, then fair enough, Phoenix it has to be, but I would sound a note of caution about over-compensating. It's quite easy to google a host of facts about a place, as has been suggested, but that carries a risk of you shoehorning in a load of extraneous detail to demonstrate how much you really really know the place.
Think about how the scenes would be written if they were set in your own town — would you mention specific restaurants, hotels, street names, landmarks? If not, then don't put them in your Phoenix scenes, or you're in danger of:

Arriving in Phoenix I walked across the Historic Heritage Square, the original town site and one of the last historic sites left in Phoenix, its 19th-century Victorian houses all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
 

KiraOnWhite

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Random hangouts and restaurants can be invented, but including local habits and mannerisms would certainly add to the realism so you may want to research on that too other than the local sites. My story is set in the UK and since I'm an Asian, I am totally unfamiliar with how they talk there and some may find it strange if the people talk in American English.

Or maybe you could just write the novel first to get the story out and substitute factual parts like John Barnes' writing, then do the research prior to the editing.
 

Matera the Mad

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I once stuck myself with some chapters set in Topeka, Kansas. I loved every minute of the research. Never mind that the work was fan-fic that has already been withdrawn from public view -- I was very satisfied with the setting. I used aerial photos, realtors' websites, chamber of commerce, anything I could find.

Now I am safely immersed in ice-age Poland. All I need is a rough idea of the terrain and reasonable knowledge of the conditions at that time. Whew.

I wish I'd had Google Earth a long time ago....
 

rhymegirl

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I had my main character take a plane to Hawaii. I've never been to Hawaii.

I went online and did some research. That's about the best I can do since I can't afford to go there.
 
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