Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing What Your Readers Know

We've all heard the axiom to write what you know. How about writing what your readers know.

Not too long ago, I took my laptop with me on a trip to Grapevine, Texas, for a convention. In-between meetings, I worked on an author's book. She had asked me to do a copy-edit before her agent sent it out to publishers.

The setting of the book was central Texas. One of the things I especially liked about the manuscript was that I knew the places. I had been to most of the places the author talked about. When the main character went to a coffee shop or restaurant or store, I knew exactly where she was. I could see the places in my head. I even learned some stuff about places that I didn't know.

Personally, when I write, I like to set the book in a town or place that I invent. I enjoy creating the streets, the shops, the atmosphere. I like to draw it out, put in the neighborhoods. I want to create a town so realistic that readers would think it real.

But, I have to admit, it was fun to read about the real "real" places this author let her character visit. People outside of central Texas may not recognize most of the buildings or towns in her book, but those in this area sure would. And it made me want to re-visit places and check out places I hadn't been to before.

She made each place come "alive" without spending pages describing them. She was selective in her descriptions.

To do that, you either have to be intimately acquainted with the settings -- or you have to know enough interesting and pertinent details about a place that you can convince the reader that you're knowledgeable.

The place you describe doesn't have to be accurate down to the smallest detail, but close enough that I know where I am, I feel like the author knows what she/he is talking about, and if something is there that I don't recognize, I don't close the book. I, instead, think, hmm, I don't remember that back room; I'll look for it next time I'm there.


  1. When I wrote MFH, I set it in a fictionalized version of La Jolla so I could mess with geography if need be, but still kept some things 'real' enough to please people who knew where the book was supposed to be set. It was a lot of fun and very convenient to handle it that way...

  2. That sounds like a very good compromising way to handle it. I like that!

  3. One of my novels is set in an imaginary town based on a city I lived in. My memories help with visceral touches, like sensory input in the descriptions.

  4. I like to set my stories in fictional small towns that are patterned after real small towns. Some folks in North Central Texas who read One Small Victory may recognize Little Elm thinly disguised as Little Oak in the story. But I use real places in bordering towns. I really like to scout locations for scenes, maybe it is my work in film that prompts me, but it is easier for me to write a scene around a real place. Especially the pivotal scenes. And there really was a place along hgwy 380 that advertised "guns pizza and donuts" on the same sign.

  5. Guns, Pizza and Donuts made me laugh Maryann. That is sooo Texas.

    I think most authors who create a setting base it on a real place. Or even if they don't, it grows from the bits and pieces of real places the author knows. Susan Wittig Albert's setting for her China Bayles setting is a thinly disguised San Marcos.

    And knowing that particular setting in real life does give you the memories (or current experiences) to make it vivid with real places and smells, etc.

  6. I like both - settings completely made as well as surroundings I'm at least peripherally aware of. I agree, though, if someone writes a book set in say, Detroit, they'd better get their facts straight or the locals will be put off by obvious fabrication.

  7. I do a mixture. If I set a book in an actual city, sometimes I make up streets. That way my make-believe world doesn't clash with the real one.

    In Two Wrongs, though, one of the settings was Marshall Field's before it was Macy's, on State Street in downtown Chicago.

    I went to the Walnut Room, checked out the tree, got info from the Publicity Relations person, and got permission to use the store in the book.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. Now that must have been sort of fun, Morgan -- casing Marshall Fields (or what used to be MF).

    I always think if you're using a real town and list an address on a real street, the address should be fictional.

    I admit if I see a real place in a real town, like a restaurant or a blues club, it makes me want to go visit the place.


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