Can we trick our readers into thinking they’re in a place that we ourselves have never been? Can we fool them enough to make them believe our characters actually dwell where we say they do? How important is it for us to put ourselves wholly into their shoes before setting fingers to the keyboard?
This topic arises after reading about Sidney Sheldon’s passing. I have to say I’ve never read any of his work, and didn’t even know he was the creator of “I Dream of Jeanie.” The article I read mentioned his habit of traveling to the exotic locales in which he placed his characters, and how he liked to immerse himself in that aspect of the world he was recreating on the page. I began to wonder if a reader could tell if a writer has never been to the location he or she is writing about. Could two writers — one who has been to say, Hawaii, and another who has only done extensive library research on the islands — each write a story and then present it to readers and have them guess which one actually traveled there? Could the readers tell the difference? If so, would it matter to them?
Part of my novel involves ancient Sumer. Because ancient Sumer is now Iraq, it’s safe to say I haven’t been there. I researched the buildings, the people, the culture, but the day-to-day sensations cannot be researched. Here, on the eastern shore of Maryland, I know that on a winter day it will be anywhere from chilly to cold. I know that the sun shines most days and when it doesn’t, the usual precipitation is rain, not snow. I know that when the snow does fall, it sticks to the grass, but not usually the road. I know when it does stick, the next day will most likely be warm enough so that by the afternoon the only evidence that remains of the snow is in plow-blackened mounds by the curb. I know that in five months, it will be in the upper eighties. I know that walking to the car will make me breathless from the moisture-thick air and that my hair will start forming weird little kinks. I know the asphalt will blast arid heat up my legs, but my skin will still be tacky. I know this because I live it every day. What I don’t know — and can’t feel from a book or Internet site — is what midday in Iraq feels like.
All of this leads me back to the original question; is an educated guess enough where setting is involved? Or am I cheating the reader of something, no matter how small it may be?
Image borrowed with thanks from Dawnrazor