How much is enough?

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

About Avery

I am a roller derbying, dark fantasy author. This blog chronicles my adventures in life, writing and skating. View all posts by Avery

8 responses to “How much is enough?

  • Christina Rundle

    Avery you got all my love! And hopefully some good recommendations on hotels when I come to visit. . . Yeah, well, I’d like to travel more, but if I can that is another story.I hope your ending on your novel is coming along nicely.

  • Avery

    Sqt, you’re right about sci-fi. I tend to worry about shortchanging my readers, is all. Thanks for the encouraging words and the advice.

  • SQT

    I think visualization is key. I can’t write about a fictitious place if I can visualize it in my head. I have to see it even if it doesn’t really exist. For a place like Sumer I can only guess that maybe reasearch coupled with visualization would work. Every person has their own method though. I think Stewart is right though, you have a natural introspection and way of thinking that should lend itself to writing about a place you’ve never been. I don’t think it’s necessary to physically go someplace to write about it. Otherwise sci-fi would never get written.

  • Avery

    Kate — You raised a good point about the “mundane” details like driving time. It can definitely spoil the suspension of disbelief, especially for a native of the area. At least I don’t have to worry much about that!Christina — Ah yes, space. I totally forgot about the legions of books written on the topic. That makes me feel a little better. And thanks for the love — again. Stewart — What can I say? Your kind words made my day. I’ve read enough of what you have to say to take that as a huge compliment. Thanks so much. Your advice — just as your visits to this page — is always welcome.

  • Stewart Sternberg

    Avery, before I attempt to answer your question, let me just write that I am impressed by your comments on other blogs as well as mine. You have an amazing mind. I don’t know you, but I would bet you are given to tremendous introspection. You have a tremendous tendency toward the analytical, as well as clarity in expressing your thoughts. A powerful combination.Now onto the question. It’s sort of a tangent on the old: How do you write about experience when you are writing about things fantastical. Here is what I would do to write about a place where I had never been and hopefully will never go: first, I would get to know as much as I could about the location by reading up on it. I would also look at pictures and perhaps read other people’s accounts. Then, once the location was in my head, I would write. As long as it is real to me, it is real to my reader.

  • Danny Tagalog

    Immersing yourself in Sumerian culture is a real challenge! But I guess if tou submerge yourself into previous writings and hold back on personal preferences and judgments whilst researchingyou can get pretty close.

  • Christina Rundle

    That is a good question and I have no idea what the answer is. I’ve read a lot of books that I know the writer has never visited the places they write about, but they are written so well that it hardly matters. Think of all those stories based in space? I doubt that many people have gone up there, but yet we see constant stories based on it. As long as you do research on what you are writing, I think you will be okay. Besides, from what I’ve read, I honestly don’t mind that you haven’t been there, your characters blow me away. They are so developed, I think you can pull this off just fine.

  • Kate S

    Good question. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. But my guess is that it’s best if you’ve been there yourself, but if you’ve done a lot of research and don’t go into to too many details, you might be ok. Keep it general, or you might have a fictitious store somewhere that there’s no way it could be. It reminds me of reading a novel years ago by an English writer who had obviously never been to the U.S. She had a character drive from Chicago to New York in two hours! I don’t care how fast you’re going, it’s not going to happen. Heck, if it’s rush hour traffic, you can’t even get from one side of Chicago to the other in less than two hours. 🙂

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