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2.16.2009

Writing About Places You’ve Never Been

Only in Paris! (Photo by Malias.)


Last year, I had a major freak out when I realized my novel was set in Paris. I knew nothing about France. I wasn’t someone who nursed romantic ideals about the City of Light and, frankly, I’m an Anglophile.

Hence — cough — my slightly embarrassing obsession with HBMs (Hot British Men).


My supply is endless, you guys. I could post these all day.


I was fortunate enough that at least I’d been to Paris, but it was so long ago that I'd spent the entire vacation eating, of all things, pizza. I remember thinking the Eiffel Tower was less exciting in person, Napoleon’s tomb was ginormous, and Notre-Dame was so beautiful it could stop a heart. I saw the Mona Lisa, dutifully took a blurry picture, and then hopped a train to Switzerland.

That was it. The whole of my memories.

So how was I supposed to write an entire NOVEL set there?

[This is a good point to mention that, yes, despite the fact that I wrote the darn thing, my novel is a work unto itself. Meaning, no, I didn’t have a choice as to where it was set. Writing is an Odd Thing in which sometimes certain things happen that you aren’t exactly thrilled about, but you have to deal with anyway, because that’s how it is. Instinctively, you know it’s the novel’s truth.]

I found comfort in Diana Gabaldon, the American creator of the hugely popular Outlander series. Diana wrote the first novel without stepping foot in Scotland, and the book is so well-realized that it’s kept in the Scottish Fiction section of bookstores in Edinburgh!


The fab Ms. Gabaldon, visiting Scotland AFTER the fact.


I thought,
If she can do it, so can I.

Or, at least, I can make a decent stab at it and not humiliate myself too badly.

So how did I do it? How did I write about an unfamiliar place? Allow me to present the answer via my favorite way, the numbered list:


A small — very small — sampling of my reading material.


(1) BOOKS

Let’s start with the obvious. I read books. MANY books. I read travel books, guidebooks, memoirs, glossy coffee table books, children’s picture books, cookbooks, history books, children’s nonfiction books, French poetry and philosophy, art books, French language books and French dictionaries, encyclopedias, architecture books, and translated French novels. I even read graphic novels and comics that took place in Paris! The artists who create them do TONS of research and tend to see things us non-artists don’t.

Everything was fair game, and everything was helpful.

I was fortunate that my setting is popular, but even if you're writing about someplace uncommon, your local library is still bound to have a wealth of information. Find sources in as many sections of the Dewey decimal system as possible to give your novel the richest feel you can. And visit multiple libraries — public libraries tend to carry different materials than university libraries, and both are worth your time.


(Clockwise) Amelie, Before Sunset, Love Me If You Dare, 2 Days In Paris: My favorite French & French-related films!


(2) CINEMA

Another easy choice for me. I watched as many French films — classic, contemporary, and documentary — as I had time for. It gave me a sense of the language and, even more valuable, it gave me the opportunity to study the mannerisms of the actors (yes, they move differently than Americans), the cultural ideals and philosophies (found most commonly in a film’s dialogue, but also in its concepts), and the physical, place details hovering in the background (for me: the color of the River Seine, shape of the lampposts, types of cafĂ© tables).


One of the many reasons I (heart) Paris Daily Photo.


(3) INTERNET

This is probably where you start now, right? And for good reason. Apart from the obviously helpful sites like Wikipedia (beware of information found here though, and always double-check it), I found the following less-obvious sites ENORMOUSLY helpful:

Flickr — I searched Flickr for all kinds of peculiar, non-famous buildings, restaurants, and people. I found dozens of pictures of not one but two staircases necessary to my plot. Staircases. You name it, people have taken a picture of it. Take advantage of their cameras.

Google Earth — Oh MAN. Have you checked out Google Earth yet? I don’t know why I waited so long to download the (free!) software. It’s incredible. It allowed me to actually walk down the streets my characters walk. It doesn’t get any more real than that. Except, of course, a plane ticket. Which I can’t afford.

YouTube — If a location in your novel is even remotely popular, there’s a good chance someone took a video while on vacation there. I found useful footage of what is essentially the basement of a not-so-popular Parisian monument. Why someone filmed it, I have no idea, but thank you random tourist! My novel is stronger from your shaky camera work.

Blogs — Not only did I find helpful blogs written by both native Parisians and Americans living abroad, I also found vacation blogs filled with the kind of weird details that don’t make it into guidebooks. Search for “your destination + vacation + blog” and let the links surprise you.


Bouchon in Asheville. Many important research hours spent here.


(4) RESTAURANTS

If you're lucky enough to live near a restaurant that serves food from your novel’s country, eat there! Often! Few things give the flavor of a culture better than their cuisine. Learn the menu and try new things. Think about the spices and preparation and ingredients, and what that tells you about the people who make it and the place it comes from.


Paris Calling (compilation) and Mutant Love (The Hellboys)


(5) MUSIC

Similar to restaurants, music from your country is a great way to get a feel for an unfamiliar culture. Plus, you might discover some new favorites, like I did! I listened to French punk rock nonstop while writing this book. (The Hellboys are sooooo kewl.)


And, finally, two RESEARCH WARNINGS:


(1) Just because it's interesting, that doesn’t mean it belongs in your novel.

The temptation — and believe me, I understand the temptation — will be there to include EVERYTHING you find. After all, you took the time to do the research right? Shouldn’t you share it? But this saddles your story with a weight and weariness your readers aren’t interested in. Only include the things that help your story. Things that flesh out your world, that keep your plot moving forward.

(2) Know when to stop.

You don’t have to know everything about your subject before you start writing. In fact, this is the most dangerous game of all: TOO MUCH research. Once you start, it’s hard to stop, hard to feel comfortable moving forward. (“But there’s so much I still don’t know!”) The truth is, you’ll NEVER know everything, so you’ll NEVER stop researching, and then you’ll NEVER write the book. It’s best to do a general overview of research, and then to dive in headfirst and limbs flailing. As you write, you’ll discover the information you need to know. And then you can dip back into the research world and fill the blanks.


(Photo by Jasiot.)


I wasn't a Francophile before, but nothing like a little research to give a girl a new obsession. I love Paris now. LOVE. And I can’t wait to return someday.

And order something other than pizza.

15 comments:

  1. Ah yes, I've done this a few times. My ninjas live in San Francisco, and I haven't been there since I was a little kid. It's amazing what you can learn about a place now without every leaving your couch.

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  2. Yay other places, near and far!
    Especially Paris. And I love the movie Amelie, but when I told my French teacher I had seen it, she said: "Isn't that a little... mature... for you?"

    I guess that's another difference between the French and American cultures, noh?

    And stop talking about your book! I want to read it sososososo bad!

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  3. Natalie -- I love San Francisco. I have a novel set there too! (But I actually DID live there for a year, so it isn't as intimidating as the Paris novel.)

    Lexi -- Argh! I HATE it when teachers and parents say stuff like that. SO demeaning. And I've always found it ridiculous how in America sex equals an R rating and violence equals PG-13. It's the reverse of that pretty much everywhere else in the world! (Ooo, and if you liked Amelie, you should totally see Love Me If You Dare! It's a little more cynical, but it's still romantic and has those beautiful candy colors.)

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  4. Now you can go there ... and write off the trip!

    Go! Hurry up!

    Lisa

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  5. This was a great post. I tend to skimp on setting because I love my characters so much I don't care where they are, but these rich details make all the difference.

    Also, I'm just so excited for this book.

    Also, I would totally have just eaten pizza had I gone when I was younger, too. Fortunately for the culinary world, I've never been anywhere. Hopefully if I do, someday, go somewhere, I'll remember this and not order any pizza.

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  6. Excellent advice! I think I'll go look up some sites on Google Earth right now! And to your two warnings: so true! So tempting!!!

    Really, though, it's not fair we don't get to GO everywhere. There should be grants available to any writer who wants one, to visit the locations of their novels :-)

    I think that when [A&theEFABM] comes out as an actual BOOK you need to take it to Paris and photograph yourself holding it at all the important places in your book. Yes! THAT will be a great blog post!

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  7. Pizza in Paris. How sad. The last time we went to Paris though my husband ordered a hamburger and french fries the first night. What he got when the waiter brought his plate had no resemblance to a HB and FF. There was an enormous fried egg and some sauteed oval shaped potatoes. When the hubby looked under the egg there was a fried hamburger patty. We all about died laughing. The daughters especially got a big kick out of it. He was looking for comfort food after a long trip and he got France. Haha! Un oeuf au cheval.

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  8. Oh, I'm SO with Laini! You absolutely need to do that.

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  9. Laini & Kiersten -- Hahaha! The book/photos thing has sooooo already crossed my mind! :)

    (There's one very special star in particular I'm aching to visit...)

    And, Laini, let me know if you ever find that magic grant, 'cause I TOTALLY want a piece of it.

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  10. This was literally fascinating. I am going to bookmark it and read again :-)

    And is that a strawberry hanging off the side of what looks like a hot dog?? Wouldn't you know I was glued to the food photos!

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  11. You'd think that after writing about Scotland (and making a wad of money doing so), Ms. Gabaldon could afford more than a crappy cell phone pic of herself while she's there. Or is it a Polaroid?

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  12. Mmm, I'm an all-around Europhile and Paris fascinates me. I need to check out those movies STAT. I've got ancestors from Guernsey Island and it's one of my goals to spend a month there someday, taking pictures and doing family research.

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  13. I seriously cannot wait to read your book! I get more and more eager with each blog post!!

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  14. I saw your interview and loved it! Thanks to the link I was able to follow your blog!!! Yippee! I love it!

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  15. Amazing post!!! Loved it!

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