Monday, April 6, 2009

Maybe Some Day...

By Darcy Crowder

In the spirit of Spring Fever and Media Monday, I offer up one of my all-time favorite movies.

Under The Tuscan Sun.

I don’t know if it’s the stunning vistas of the Tuscan countryside, the engaging acting and wonderfully quirky secondary characters or the smooth, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) symbolism – a key factor in every one of my favorite movies.

But honestly, deep down, I think it’s the delicious, vicarious thrill of imagining what if I was the heroine (a gifted writer ) who dares to embrace opportunity, to travel across the sea on a grand adventure, discovering new friends, new love, and most wonderfully, a new, stronger self?

Now don’t get me wrong. I love my family, my home, my life. But let’s face it - the total extent of my travels consists of five states along the east coast and only last year (finally) a trip to the Grand Canyon.

World Traveler I am not.

There are so many places I want to go, things I want to see, which brings me to my long, winding point. As a reader and viewer, I love to learn about and experience new and fascinating locations through setting. As a writer, I’ve yet to venture further than my beloved North Georgia Mountains.

Which is why all my stories take place here, or at least someplace similarly familiar.

The phrase “write what you know” may be up for debate in several contexts, but when it comes to setting – I don’t think there’s any doubt of its importance. While research, in all its myriad forms (books, internet, TV, movies, interviews) can give a talented writer all they really need to bring a setting to life, that, and their imagination, I don’t think anyone could argue that nothing beats having actually been there…or at least some place comparable. Like maybe the vineyards of Napa Valley to help describe that fictional one you’re writing about in the French countryside.

You don’t think so? Well, it’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. :) Shhh, how else will I justify all the little (and not so little) trips I’d like to take? All those places to see, stories to tell.

I’m making plans to get my passport this year. Just like Lucy in “While You Were Sleeping”, I’m looking forward to my first stamp! But that’s another movie….

So tell us, how important do you think it is for a writer to have actually experienced a location in order to write about it? Is research and imagination enough?


Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning Darcy!
I think that it depends on how important of a role the setting plays in your story. If it is practically a character, then it should have been experienced if at all possible.

If not, you can probably get away with really great research.

Tami Brothers said...

Hey Darcy. I have to say that I think it is very important. I say this as being in the same boat as you and the only places I've been are Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon, Texas and now Georgia. Sounds like a lot and there were a lot of little places in between; but until I've stopped and smelled the roses, I don't feel like I've really visited them.

I also say this because I want to see all these places. Maybe that is why when I try to write about one I haven't seen, I feel like I can't find the right words.

With that said, I have written about places I haven't been, then stressed when someone reads my work that they might see what a fraud I am. So I guess I'm going to stick with that I think it is important to visit the places you want to write about. For me anyway...grin...

Tami Brothers

Maxine Davis said...

Yes. Knowing your location is a must. We have no children so early-on we said we'd travel. Well, guess what, my husband does not like flying AND wants to visit the US before Europe etc. That's good to a point; have been to most states. Still need to hit those on the West Coast. It's good that I have friends that will go with me to Europe (sounds good-have been only twice). I also love the internet when, for ex., I want to know what the avg. temperature is at the location of my writing.

But you are so right. Who doesn't dream the "what if" I had gone to Tuscany and on a whim bought a house . . . .

Devon Gray said...

Hi Darcy! In my current wip, the town is fictitous. I have to say, I'm really digging this. No one can argue that the center of town doesn't actually look the way I describe it...or that this particular town actually has more than one stoplight. Ahhh....such a creative release!

Cinthia Hamer said...

Good morning, Darcy (and all you other Hot Tamales!)

You ask a very intriguing question. Since I'm deep into a story set in Victorian England, with references to South Africa, I think that without the help of H.G. Wells, I wouldn't be able to visit my location. LOL! Wouldn't that be a blast, though???

Therefore, I must rely solely upon research, and lots of it, to have my characters, setting and dialog ring true.

Sure, it would be great if we could jet off to some exotic destination and experience our locations personally, but in reality, that just isn't always possible--unless you're La Nora or some other wildly wealthy author. ;)

I must say, though, that whenever I read a book, I don't ponder whether the author has actually traveled to the place where the book is set.

However, Darcy, I encourage you to make every attempt to spread your wings and fly off to some unknown place. You never know what surprises await you.

Every time I travel, I find something that lodges in my brain. Whether it's a location, some funky character I met or even a situation that would be a great point of reference in a book.

Cinthia Hamer said...

Oh, I completely forgot to mention...I absolutely ADORE Under The Tuscan Sun. One of my all time favorite movies. Other favorites are Shirley Valentine, Enchanted April and A Good Year. Funny enough, these movies are all about people who travel to a wondrous place and ultimately find their true path in life.

Anonymous said...

Good Morning Darcy,

I bought Nora Robert's book, The Villa (in hardback)as soon as it was on the shelves. First, I like Nora, and second, I lived in California at the time and it was about a Napa Valley Winery (as well as one in Italy). I enjoyed the book and she had the setting so down that I assumed she had been there. When she came to Border's for a booksigning, she started the day with a 20-min Q&A for the couple hundred of us crammed into the store. She said she had never been to Napa. Who knows, she might never have been to Italy either. She is a master at doing her homework and getting it right.

Now, to us...I'd rather have been to the location and know what it looks like, what the activities are, etc before writing, or just use an imaginary town. I read a book once set in Sacramento California and it was so very obvious that the person hadn't been there. The only thing they got right was the number of the major highways leading into and out of town.

Great post...and I'm with you on that travel thing. Any excuse is a good one for me.


Marilyn Baron said...

Ok everybody, save some of your comments. My April 15 post is going to cover the same topic (eerie)as Darcy's. And at the end I'm asking the same question.

I will also mention (as Anonymous) just did, that in workshops and lectures Nora Roberts has given, she says she does not travel to do research. She does all her research on line and she does it herself. And she really makes her settings come alive. So it can be done, but as I will say, "Alas, we can't all be Nora Roberts."

I have been fortunate enough to have traveled extensively for business and pleasure, and I have set my books in some interesting places (I'm not published yet, hmmm). But I've never traveled specifically to research a book, just set my books in places I've already been to and am familiar with. And that's great, but probably not necessary. I agree with Cinthia that sometimes you have to do research. I set a book in WWII Bermuda and although I was familiar with modern day Bermuda, I had to do a lot of research to capture life as it had been.

So probably my answer would be no you don't have to travel to write the book but it sure would be a lot more fun.

Marilyn Baron

Cyrano said...

I adore Under the Tuscan Sun too. I own it, but every time it comes on TV I watch it, no matter if it's fifteen minutes into the movie or an hour.
You talked about symbolism and of course the faucet in her entryway came to mind. I try to integrate symbolism into my novels. I think it's an important aspect of good story telling.
I also think that with excellent research a writer can bluff her way through any location. Anywhere from the Amazon jungle to Russia's frozen tundra is up for grabs if you hit the library or internet. But...(and this is a ginormous but) I totally agree, there is no substitute for actually being there - touching, smelling, hearing your surroundings and then weaving all of that sensory information into your story can bring it to life.
I'm not a world traveler either Darcy. I've been to very few places, all within the US. So I've never written about other countries. But last year I went to Nationals in San Francisco and that trip inspired me to set my WIP in that area. I could have studied the city on the internet, but actually being there has brought my futuristic, paranormal erotic, romance world to life in ways a few hours in the library could not.
As always Darcy, great post.
have a brilliant day,

CiCi Barnes said...

I'm with you. I think it's important, but with that said, who can argue with Nora Roberts. If she doesn't travel to all those places she writes about, look how well she does it with other research.

I think I say it's important to me because it makes me feel more confident in my writing. If I've not been there, I fret and wonder what little mistake I might be making for someone to call me on.

But I also right about parallel worlds and time travel, so I guess my theories of being there is better just goes right out the window.

I can go to Savannah and walk every street, and it may be an old city, but I still can't be right there in the 1860's to see if I'm stating things accurately.

So, in this long-winded argument in my brain, I guess it can run both ways, if you do good research.

Now, you've just made me think too much and my brain hurts.


CiCi Barnes said...

And when my brain hurts, I use the wrong spelling, like "right", instead of "write". And I forget to proof-read before I hit "Post".



Carol Burnside said...

Most things are available on the internet now. Google Earth will zoom right down on the very street you want to put your restaurant on. You can see how busy or wide it is, whether there's a stop sign or light there, etc. There are also historical weather charts available online and sun/moon charts so that you'll know if it's possible or not the sun could be setting in Denver at approximately 6:45 pm in May, for example. The things you can't know without visiting are the smells, the sounds of dialect and things like what Spanish Moss really looks like close up in a Live Oak tree along the Southeastern coast. Even so, there are so many forums these days in which to ask those questions and get answers from people who actually live there, that even those things could be learned. And don't even get me started on the pictures available on the 'net!

Hmm. I guess I'm with La Nora. No need to go there if you've really done extensive homework. But, where's the fun in that? :-D

Anna Steffl said...

Do you know that stories set in the South are exotic to me? I grew up in Nebraska. We have little history there. The South seems ancient, confusing, a bit mythical and frankly, a bit scary, too. So,though your settings might seem hum-drum to you, they are quite unusual to people in the rest of the country.

Darcy Crowder said...

Morning ladies - now we're cookin'! :)

Debbie - I couldn't agree with you more, it all depends on just how important the setting is to the story. By the way, Karen White is frequently given a wonderful workshop on making setting a character in your story. Her new book - The Lost Hours - is coming out today! She never fails to deliver an engaging story.

Tami - I know what you mean about worrying that you really need to know exactly what's what if you place a story in a real city or town. Which is why I agree with Devon (Hi Devon!) - there's a wonderful creative freedom in making up those fictitious towns. LOL. I've even got one story on the back burner right now that takes place on a made up island off the coast of North Carolina. :) But see, while I have lots of license with the details, I'd love to take a road trip to the Outer Banks just to soak up the mindset of the island dwellers, that intangible way of life that's harder to grasp from only reading about it.

Linsey Lanier said...

Very intriguing post, Darcy. I had to stop and think which side of the issue I'm on. I've lived several places - Chicago, Atlanta, Las Vegas. Even spent some time in Germany and also did a European tour in college.

I do tend to write about the places I've experienced, but some of them were so long ago, I still have to research them as if I'd never been there. LOL.

And yet, you get a sense of the spirit or aura of the place when you've actually been there. Maybe it's in the climate, or the attitude and lifestyle of the people, or as you put it "that intabible way of life." Chicago is the "City that Works," for example, the setting for my current WIP. I find myself digging into old memories to conjure up an intutive feel for the people and the places I experienced there.

I also use a mixture of the real and the fictional for place names like restaurants and hospitals. That way, if the place changes before the book is out, I'm not in trouble. This is also a good technique if something bad happens at the place -- like a murder.

Great post. And an important topic -- looking forward to discussing it further when Marilyn posts on April 15.


Darcy Crowder said...

Hi Maxine. Yes, what if I had gone to Tuscany...on a whim bought a house. Hmmm. But it's also a curiosity of how I might grow as a person for having been to and experienced these new places, different cultures, what I might learn about myself....LOL. I guess I have a bit of wanderlust in me.

Of course, I also agree with Sandy, CiCi and Carol (Hi ladies!) - who can argue with the success of Nora? Carol's right, you can get a pretty acurate picture of just about anywhere these days...or find someone who can describe it to you.

Hi Tamara. You hit the nail on the head. It's all about inspiration. :) Several months ago I was fortunate enough to go to Charleston, SC. (one of my favorite places on earth!) Just walking down those centuries old streets stirred my creativity to new heights. I absolutely can't wait to set a story there.

Anna - I've never thought of the south as particularly mythical, or scary, but now that you've mentioned it, I can see what you mean. Thanks for your insight. :) I do know that I absolutely love living in this part of the country!

Susan May said...

I think you can write a great book and have the setting correct without going there but it give me more confidence to write about something I've seen. I have wonder lust-badly. In fact I would rather travel than pay my power bill or send my children to college. I am still dong both instead of being in England sipping tea during spring break! I think traveling makes you a broader person in mind (and sometimes body) but it isn't alway possible to go to every spot you want to write about, but I do tend to write about places I been. Nice post, Darcy.

Emma Lai said...

If you're writing about an actual place then I think it helps to have experienced that place yourself. Second best is talking to someone who has been there. For those of us that write sci-fi, we can rely on our imaginations. Personally, I don't know anyone who's been on a spaceship 250 years in the future!

Nicki Salcedo said...

I agree with Emma. Every location in Star Wars was unique. Arid to swampy, frozen to cloud city. Sci-fi is certainly proof that you don't have to go there to imagine it.

For traditional fiction, I think you need to know something about Italy before you set your novel (or movie) there. Doesn't mean you have to have visited. Maybe your reading only Italian history, movies, novels. Maybe you heard your grandmother talk about Italy. Maybe you just set your book in an "Italian-like" country and just do whatever the heck you like!

Great topic, Darcy. I think I wrote better about Georgia when I lived in California, and now I writer better about California now that I live in Georgia. Some knowledge and some longing make for some great descriptions of setting. Happy writing to all.

Mary Marvella said...

Hey, Darcy, you brought up an interesting question. I agree that we must know something about an area, but we can learn a lot with research.

I like southern settings because I know about them. I use my settings as backgrounds and never use a real town or city.

The Writers Canvas said...

Great post, again! (Yes Marilyn...I will also comment when you do this on 4/15!)

I'm torn on this issue. I think, if at all possible, it really helps to visit the location because it's *your* first impressions that often make the best seedlings in a book. Obviously, some locations aren't possible to go to (finances, economy, go back to Victorian England, etc.)

My first 2 books were set in Atlanta; my third book was Savannah; my fourth (and WIP) is in New Orleans, where I grew up. Maybe there's a trend here. Even when my characters travel, I typically "set" the travel in places I've seen across the USA because it helps.

On the other hand, seeing something similar or talking to someone who's been there can often be a great resource in lieu of going yourself. FYI Darcy, while the Grand Canyon is gorgeous, Georgia has Providence Canyon near Columbus...they say it's the mini-Grand Canyon, just in case some of y'all don't get the chance to go to Arizona.

Maybe one day I'll set a book somewhere that I haven't been...and I loved Under The Tuscan Sun too!