Saturday, March 26th, 2011 06:17 pm

So I was laying in bed last night, a snoring mastiff at my feet, when I finally finally was hit with the ending to the fic which has been eating my brain. (Unfortunately it'll increase my word count like whoa although that is neither here nor there.)  I started writing it out and realized, once again, I was basing the premise somewhere in Northern California.

This probably is to be expected: I've lived in NorCal all my life and am not really all that well-traveled. By using somewhere I myself am familiar with I can avoid embarrassing mistakes, like saying that Boston is a two hour drive from Long Island, or accidentally using 'miles' instead of 'kilometers' when my characters are dodging bullets in the Swiss Alps.

Certainly there are actual authors who do this --  Stephen King would have me believe that everything important and/or scary happens somewhere in Maine -- and if it's in the canon, hey, why not? 


... There's something lazy about it, isn't there? It's always seemed to me a little smug, as if the writer is saying, "This is my home: let me show it to you." Like being cornered and forcefully shown boring vacation photos from extended family, and yes, they had a good time but you personally couldn't care less.

It still doesn't stop me from doing it, occasionally. Not like I have much of an opportunity -- there's not much use for any geographical location to pop up in ATLA or Naruto. But I will sometimes throw in a local bird or describe a swimming hole based on a place I've been: tiny inside jokes probably only I will get upon re-reading.

So my question to everyone is... how much of this do you do in your writing? Do you prefer to set your characters in a place which suspiciously resembles your home town? Do you avoid it like the plague? Do you see it as lazy writing or relatively harmless? 

Sunday, March 27th, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)
I admit, I have based a number of my series in New York, but it's because it's an exciting city for me. I think a location should work for the story.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
True! But New York is a hub for... pretty much everything, so I think you're allowed to get away with it. :)

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
This is why I have such a hard time with contemporary/urban fantasy. It's just easier to make up worlds and places. Otherwise everything would take place in an obscure town in a Megacity that no one's ever heard of.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:08 pm (UTC)
No kidding, right? I'm a big fan of Urban Fantasy and I suspect that the authors place their characters RIGHT in their home towns. There was one exception where one was a madeup town, but it was clearly based off somewhere.

Writing in the real world is hard, man. :/
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
It's an interesting question. I travel a hell of a lot and lived in a variety of places so I guess I've never noticed it. I've definitely written pieces based in locations I haven't been (like Afghanistan) and I feel like it pushes me out of my comfort zone to do so but in a good way. It forces me to research a ridiculous amount. I may or may not capture the essence of the place but I kind of like trying to do it as a challenge.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
And you did do very well with Afghanistan, if you don't mind me saying so. I do like looking at it as a challenge... I'm trying to write some original stuff based in an area I've never been in before. It's hard.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
I think it's perfectly all right to use your own hometown, state, or country as a setting for original fiction but--BUT--writers have to step out of their comfort zones, eventually. Writing what you know makes it more reliable for the time being, however.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
True dat! I can't write exclusively what I know -- I've never fired a gun at someone, for example, but my characters tend to do that all the time haha.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
I've definitely done the "swimming hole" thing myself, or thrown in something I remember from my childhood.

And I'm more inclined to write original fiction where the characters have had an upbringing similar to mine. They may be a different race, or male, or whatever, but in broad terms we're similar. I write what I know and what I've read extensively about because I like the subject.

It's limiting and dumb, yeah, and certainly lazy, but I'd rather be WRITING instead of RESEARCHING. :P It's not the end of the world, I don't think, and I AM willing to research if I have to... but mostly I try not to have to. :P
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:13 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm with you there... and I've never been a big fan of research. I never thought about it, but I'm certain characters I've written have something in common with how I've been brought up. Hmm... I'll have to think about that. Perhaps I've been doing it unconsciously.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 02:01 am (UTC)
I don't tend to write stories that take place in a city/state I've lived in, but that's mostly because I don't tend to write stories that take place in this world. However, I do take advantage of my knowledge about certain areas and incorporate those settings into my writing. I'm able to give a more realistic feel to the atmosphere when I do this, and really, no matter how much research you do, there's nothing quite like experiencing a setting in terms of being able to write it.

I don't feel comfortable writing about large cities, for instance. Because...I've never lived in one. So no matter how much research I do, I'm bound to get little details wrong everywhere--little details that will be glaringly obvious and jarring to anyone who does actually live in a large city.

So, I guess in summation I'm saying that no, I don't think it's lazy at all. Sure, it's good to branch out and expand your horizons, but it's also good to know where your expertise lies, and to play to your strengths.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
Welp, I've lived in the backwaters most of my life and the last ten years in the city so if you ever have any questions.... :)

Yeah, I think I could write like, say, Hawaii all I want, but having never been there I'm afraid I wouldn't capture the atmosphere at all. But I could tell you exactly what walking through Lake Tahoe would feel/smell/look like without question.

Clearly the answer is that I need to get out more. haha. I need to gather more strengths.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 03:00 am (UTC)
I tend to use places I've never been for setting if it's urban (most recently, Chicago, which I've never been to) and any place rural tends to be an new creation based off the area I grew up in. Never really used Buffalo for much but I haven't really lived in any section of it to form much of an attachment to it.

Nothing wrong with using an area you're familiar with. A lot of published authors have made a living without straying from their own backyard. (As you mentioned, Steven King is one of the most notorious.)

I don't think it's lazy. As long as the story works in the setting, doesn't matter if it's someplace you're familiar with or someplace you're not. If anything, using someplace you're familiar with adds authenticity and character since you know the quirks of the area that you can work in.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC)
True! I guess it's just a matter of give and take. Some authors (Patricia Briggs, Naomi Novik) tend to show their so carefully I can sorta tell they've done a lot of research/traveling to their settings. That always throws me out of the story.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 03:43 am (UTC)
maybe i should try actually writing about montana for once

brb authoring the most boring tale in the history of ever
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC)
Hey, Montana can be cool! Patricia Briggs writes a very successful Urban Fantasy series partially based out of Montana. :)
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)
I live in Australia, hail from Thailand, but write in fandoms predominantly set in America or England (or an AU feudal Japan if you want to count Naruto).

It's impossible that small parts of my life and experience didn't somehow creep into my writing, but it's the small, universal things. Like the smell of a car's exhaust, or the feel of rain weighing down your clothes.

I never write anything overly specific to a tee. You wouldn't see parts of my street in my story. But yeah, the tiny things I can relate to make their way in, whether I notice it immediately or not.

However, I see nothing wrong with drawing on personal experience for writing. Everything has to have a starting point, right? And the Internet can pretty much compensate for everything else with Google. :)
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
The internet is a great help for BSing places, I won't even lie. ;D That is so cool that you have that experience to draw on from two different cultures. That might give you a real advantage, creatively.

And I have actually seen published authors go down to the detail of street names, and I'm like... You're showing your work a little too much there, buddy. Tone it down a little.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 05:23 am (UTC)
I don't have this problem so much with fanfic as I do with original fic - with fanfic I can just go based off the places featured in the canon, but with original fic I tend to rely more on describing things and places that I know... or at least, I fall into relying on that, and then try to shake myself out of it, because I often actually have a place in mind for stuff to occur and I have to remind myself that it doesn't have the same geographical features as where I live.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
Fanfic is so easy in that way, isn't it? Now that I'm trying to venture into the original I'm realizing how much I was using established canon as a crutch. I think that might be why I'm falling to using something I know, again. Maybe I'll grow out of it. Baby steps! :D
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 05:34 am (UTC)
I don't write fiction, but personally I think it's fine to write what you know--my vote is that it's harmless, and probably even a good thing. All my best nonfiction was about places and things I know intimately--problems begin when I try to write about stuff I haven't seen or places I haven't been. AND writing what you know keeps you from having to research and then accidentally make embarrassing mistakes.

I once got part-way through a novel about a person returning to their rural childhood home after years in a career in the city. I stopped reading the dumb book because of the asinine way the (obviously city-slicker) author described the protagonist looking out over fields and "no longer being to tell the difference between wheat and corn". Wheat and corn. Wheat and corn! The author clearly Did Not Do The Research. Fear of screwing up similarly badly keeps me from straying too far into making things up about real places.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 08:20 am (UTC)
Wheat and corn - presumably a British/European writer - where both are grass-like plants and pretty much indistinguishable from a distance at harvest time. It's certainly a phrase I might use in describing a view across my native Kent. But not across Ohio.

I tend to stick to writing in mileau I know - though I have set a story in wartime Paris, which took a lot of research and racking my memory for the one visit I made there years before.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 07:54 am (UTC)
I've actually never based a single story off of where I grew up. It used to be that I always worried that people would somehow mysteriously guess where I was and stalk me or something (I was a very paranoid teenager), but as I grew up, I kept it up because I realized how much fun I had researching other places so I didn't sound like I didn't know what I was talking about. Sure, it takes a lot longer to write when you have to research first, and I've had a lot of stories I've ended up never writing because I got tired of the storyline before I actually put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard, if you want to get technical). But in the end, I'm really writing for myself, so that's never mattered to me.

I guess what I'm saying is, do whatever makes the experience more fun for you. If you want to base it out of your home so you know what you're talking about, great! If you enjoy doing the research enough to base it out of somewhere else, also great! Whatever makes it more enjoyable and less a chore, because writing should never be a chore.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
That is excellent advice. Thanks. :)

I'm basing this particular scene for a story out of NorCal because it's the only place I can think of with the travel time between sea and mountains to be about what I need for the plot.

And I'm the type of person to leap first and ask questions later, so research... has always been a little daunting and unfun for me. I think I shall try to make a game of it and see if that works.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 09:47 am (UTC)
I personally have no problem doing this, or with other authors who do it. I mean, I think it's good to write what you know. It's not lazy. You should always put something of yourself and your own personal story in your writing, even while branching out into the furthest reaches of your imagination. I think it's great for the reader to be able to experience a place they've never been through the eyes of someone who knows it really well. Also, I kind of think it's impossible not to base a handful of stuff in your writing on what you know most of the time. To avoid doing that altogether seems futile and counterproductive to me.

Both the Nanos I've done take place in SoCal, haha.:P (Even the one I did that's sci-fi and set 200 years in the future.) I'm totally the same when it comes to not being very well traveled...I'm sure I'll be writing about California for years to come. (I also think we need more California authors representin', so don't stop!xD)
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
Yay! California author's represent! *brofist*

On that subject: have you noticed that while, of course, a lot of movies are shot in California it's really hard to find a fantasy series based out of the western states? I'd read that in a second, if I found one.

You should always put something of yourself and your own personal story in your writing, even while branching out into the furthest reaches of your imagination.

That's good advice, and I'll try! The problem is I'm worried about 'showing my work' too much, getting a little too detailed. I guess it's all in how I present it, though.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 10:31 am (UTC)
I personally think it's better to write about a place you know if you want to set it in a real place and describe it in a lot of detail. I'm admittedly not a good writer, but I find people and sights and smells and sounds are so different depending on where you go that not experiencing it can sometimes leave out details that you can't get just from looking up things in books or on websites. Besides, Northern California's amazing! However, if you would like to set it somewhere different I'm sure you could find people willing to talk about their homes (or places they've visited) if you wanted to get a lot of detail.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:50 pm (UTC)

I'm getting so many varied responses about where people live... I'm starting to realize that I'm sitting on a wealth of information right here. haha. Next time I have a question about a specific place, I'm wondering if I shouldn't come to my f-list.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 11:02 am (UTC)
“All the world’s a stage”. And the whole world is in your mind. You can be everywhere you want, anyone you want... It's logical, it's easier to write about something you already are familiar with (people, places, emotions...), but in the same time, give free reign to your imagination. If you want to place your story in an existent location, a special country and your feet never walked there, well, you must be very well documented about … everything: language, names, geography, people’s habits, fauna, flora. The amount of research is connected with how much you want to go in depth. I’m so tired of bad books, stories, movies made in America (most of them) with action, or one or many characters from my country, but, seriously, no one ever bother to hire a consultant, someone from my country to ask him/her about whatever is necessary. So…, this is easier and fairer to make everything happen in a place familiar to you, or in an imaginary place. Well, no matter what anybody say, you must do what you are comfortable with. Good luck.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Yeah, there is definitely the worry that if you write a location/thing/subject that has been written about many times before it can become stale in the reader's minds. I have read a few world-trekking books before, with fantasy characters written by American authors (the Temeraire series comes to mind.)
Edited 2011-03-27 04:55 pm (UTC)

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
I would say that's perfectly natural, perhaps not to the extent that King does it (Though I do love his works).

I haven't done this much myself in terms of location, but that's because I really only write fanfic so...yeah. I do think I do it for WHAT I write about, if not WHERE. And you know most of my work, so I think you know what I mean.

The worst offender of this I can think of is an author here in VT who I won't name. I'm not joking, every time a character mentions a location he then spends a crapton of time talking about how awesome that location in VT is. I'm sorry, I live in VT, I love VT and New England. But give it a rest. It's pretentious, obnoxious and really just stupid.

That's all I got, I'm out. Peace!
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)
King does it on overdrive, I think. :) Still, it doesn't stop me from reading him. haha.

And oh man, that does sound annoying. I hate author's little asides like that. I'm in the middle of River Marked by Patricia Briggs and she's really bad for showing her work in a similar manner. I'm like: can we get back to the plot please?

Though she's better than Kim Harrison, who severely dislikes anything/anyone coming from the West Coast and tends to show it in her books. haha.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
I think that you can build on what you know. I mostly write fantasy when I write original fiction, so while I usually create wholesale new cities/countries/whatever, I base them in my mind on other ones. I'm planning out a story based in a city called something like "The Island", the street layout of which will be based on the oldest part of Lille (a transliteration of l'isle, or island), the city in which I studied. I say "based on" because I can then completely make up where, say, cafés are and such without having to physically go there to double-check if I'm right.

I think that if you write what you know you won't have to do as much research and it will ring more "true" to those who live there and those who don't. There's nothing worse than reading a story based at a place you love and go "Yeah... the author's never been here. They don't know what it's REALLY like."

On the same note, I write "things that I know" in that I'm inventing an entirely alternate future set way up north in Nunavut, because while I've never been to the Canadian territories and I've never experienced THAT much cold, I've done research regarding the Inuit culture and I know what cold winters are like. ;)

Anyway, I say it's not lazy! ... provided you don't make a huge habit of it. Don't have every single book set in the same area unless they're all in the same universe with the same characters. ;)
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
I would TOTALLY read your future!Nunavut story, just so you know.

I think the best option for a fantasy series would probably be to make up a location, as you said, so you don't have to constantly go there to make sure the coffee shop is where you said it is. ;D Or just loosely base it from somewhere and roll with it.

I've recently read a urban fantasy series based out of 'Ashland' which was pretty much a mashup of Memphis TN and New Orleans. It wasn't bad, actually, and definitely freed the author from having to be correct.

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 03:35 pm (UTC)
I think it's a question of moderation -- at least, that's how I tend to regard it.

Writing what you know can make a huge difference in how real something feels to readers, and that's a huge help in making the story tangible. I can always tell when a novelist has actually lived in NYC, because I lived there for a while: it can be really jarring to see characters just hop in their cars to go to the grocery store -- because, no, you walk to the corner bodega, because you don't have a car.

I would think it becomes a bad thing when it's a crutch - when you can't write anything that isn't the same place you always do. There's a difference between "I wrote this set in NorCal which is, hey, canon, and I'm comfortable with it!" and "I'm going to write as if everything in any fandom I encounter is set in NorCal, because it's what I know."

So, um, it's a fuzzy grey area for me?

I find I write in fandoms set in the real world so infrequently (i.e. almost never) that it's not really relevant -- I can't write about Konoha and sub in NYC or a small town in the midwest, because they're just not applicable. (But I'm sure I tend to default to city-thinking in ways that aren't obvious to me.) I find I draw more from personal experience in inter-personal relationships than location, but I've moved a lot.

Adding a layer of tangibility to fic is wonderful - and that done well, adding little details from personal experience (if they fit the story and universe) can be a great way to add dimension to a story. I think it only becomes lazy when the details being added are not relevant to the story and/or don't fit the world in which it is set. (non-ironic Avatar high school AU! Assuming that Konoha has shopping malls and night clubs where people dress up in hot topic clothes! etc.)
Edited 2011-03-27 03:39 pm (UTC)
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
I think these are wise words and I'd be best to listen to them. :) Yeah, it is all about moderation.

And LOL yes, I have seen authors put in clubs with Hot Topic clothes right smack in the middle of Konaha (it's a ninja village, you see, and they have jutsus which hide the ooonz ooonz ooonz beats late into the night. hahaha)

I think if I ever sit down an fully write a book, I'll have to have someone out of the area I'm basing it in double-check my work and make sure I don't make silly mistakes like your NYC-cars example. See, that's something I wouldn't have thought of either! :D

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
You can always be like Stephenie Meyer who picked her town for Twilight by reading wiki. ...wait, on second thought, maybe you shouldn't. :P

Maybe because most of my family is in Maine, but I've always liked that most of King's stories are set there.
Sunday, March 27th, 2011 05:04 pm (UTC)
Oh geez. That series! I've only seen the movie, but I wonder if she really did put a large high school into a town with a population of 2000. That's... so not gonna work, logistically. Unless they were shipping in kids from other towns to fill the classrooms. lol.

And I will admit that King's Maine settings always made me want to visit there. ;)
Edited 2011-03-27 05:05 pm (UTC)

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Sunday, March 27th, 2011 05:41 pm (UTC)
I thought I might be able to give you my own thoughts on this... I think that the lack of exposure is limiting, but maybe not as limiting as you think. You don't have to do the Stephen King thing and only write about where you grew up, but if you're a good writer you can.

What I think is missing is the difference between a story where the setting just enriches the story and a story where the setting is integral to the plot, or to be cheesy and use Disney movies it's the difference between Beauty and the Beast and Ratatouille. They're both set in France, but in Beauty and the Beast, having a setting enriches the story (as compared to the Little Mermaid where the setting is more vague), but you could set it in England or Denmark, or somewhere like that without many changes to the story (a bit of a different flavor, but the same story). On the other hand, Ratatouille wouldn't work the same anywhere else.

I'm not sure you'd be comfortable writing a Ratatouille without going to France, but I think you could write a Beauty and the Beast. It will take the work to do the research, but that's entirely doable.

Keep in mind, there are a bunch of people who write historical fiction and they can never "be" there, but they can fake it, sometimes by going there in the present day, but most of it's going to be research. So don't be afraid to base it on research and on what other people have said in the past.
Monday, March 28th, 2011 02:44 am (UTC)
What? Set stories in the real world? But then I won't have any incentive to invent my own economic systems and class structures!

Yes, I was a GM before I was an amateur writer, why do you ask?