Writing Where You Know

17 Nov

By Sammy Bina


I’m walking down the street. On my left is an over-priced apartment building, large red flags with white W’s hanging from multiple balconies. There’s a valet podium outside that numerous people run into on a daily basis (myself included), and a guy dressed up like a concierge who probably hates his job more than anything. There’s also a Walgreens, the main student center, and a building whose steps are littered with cigarette butts and broken glass. On my right is a large cement block building with a weird statue outside and oddly shaped lights that you’d probably never see anywhere else. Also, construction. Lots of it. The street is full of cars, driven by people who should’ve never been given a driver’s license, and bikers who refuse to acknowledge pedestrians. Which isn’t a big deal, because the pedestrians think they’re invincible and don’t acknowledge the bikers. Or cars. And then there’s me, a single, solitary body, lost in the midst of a large crowd of people with backpacks and over-sized purses, rushing to cross Park Street before the automated voice stops saying, “The walk sign is now on to cross Park.”

Sound familiar?

Don’t worry if it doesn’t! More than likely, it won’t. To a non-native, the above paragraph would be nothing more than a description of some random place in some random city. But if you live in downtown Madison, Wisconsin you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll know exactly which apartment complex I’m talking about, that the cement block building is the art museum, and you definitely know how awful the construction is.

In other words, what I’ve written above is an accurate representation of the city I live in. If you’ve been there, you can’t dispute what I’ve just said.

Which, coincidentally, is today’s lesson! In other words, write not only what you know, but where you know.

As writers, one of the most important aspects of a novel is its setting. You have to have one; it’s not negotiable. It doesn’t matter if it’s set on the moon, in New York City, or under the ocean. You just can’t have a story without a setting. Or, rather, you can’t have a good story without a setting.

But what happens when you want to write a story that takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, but you’ve never been there? Sure, you could make up some stuff; that would be the easy way out. The problem with using actual locations, and not a made-up town of your own choosing, is that people actually live there. And, chances are, if your book is published and you’ve completely reinvented that city, readers native to the area are going to notice. And then your credibility goes poof!

So how do you go about solving this dilemma? Easy! Research. And the very best kind, too.

Here are some helpful ways to gather information on your intended real-life location:

1. Google. This one’s pretty obvious. If we stick with the Madison theme, there are plenty of useful sites that pop up, including a Wikipedia page, the city’s actual homepage, the university’s website, and numerous others. Read through them and take notes on anything that may be pertinent to your story. If your main character goes to college, make sure you spend a good amount of time on the college’s website. Look at the interactive campus maps, and find out where things are located. If they work at the Starbucks on State Street, know where it is in relation to other places, and what’s nearby. They may seem like stupid, unimportant details, but it’s better to know as much as you can about an area before you start writing. For example, I’ve got a map of Washington D.C. that I’m using for my current WIP. Even though I’ve lived there, the visual representation has gotten me out of quite a few sticky situations so far. So even if you’re writing about your own city, it’s still helpful to do your research.

2. Google street view. I think this is the Greatest Thing Ever. Not only can I figure out where I’m driving ahead of time, and what landmarks to look for, I can pretty much tour an entire city from the comfort of my own home. I don’t need to drive there, fly there, or hitchhike. Every detail I could want about the outside appearance of a city is at my fingertips. I use it every time I’m writing about a place I don’t know, and it offers some assurance that I’m getting things right. No local of Richmond, Virginia is going to yell at me for not being accurate. I definitely suggest using this when writing about a location you’ve never visited.

3. Ask around. The internet’s pretty great, but so are people. And, lucky for you, people use the internet! If you’re part of a writing community (either online or off), chat room, message board, critique group, reading group, etc., you always have other people to bounce ideas off of. And hopefully someone you know will have been to the place you want to write about and can offer some guidance. Or point you in the right direction. You never know what kind of information your friends are hiding!

4. Maps. This goes hand-in-hand with Google street view, but I want to reiterate the importance of maps. Knowing where things are in relation to other things is always beneficial, and can make that chase scene in your murder mystery either really exciting, or incredibly lengthy. Google Earth is another useful tool you may want to look into.

This may all seem like common sense, but I urge you to take it into consideration, regardless. In the course of my internship, I’ve read numerous stories set in places I’ve lived or visited, and are completely misrepresented because the author clearly just looked at a map, picked a random city, and ran with it. Sure, most people have probably never been to Sharon, Wisconsin, but I have, and people do live there. They’ll know if you screwed things up. So take your time, do your research, and I can guarantee your story will be better for it.


Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior majoring in Creative Writing. Currently an intern with the Elaine P. English literary agency, she is querying her adult dystopian romance, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, and revising DON’T MAKE A SCENE, a YA novel she wrote back in high school. You can find her on twitter, or check out her blog.


12 Responses to “Writing Where You Know”

  1. Chantal November 17, 2010 at 12:26 AM #

    Great post!

    As someone who writes fantasy and sci-fi, this happily is something I don’t usually have to worry about, but it’s very pertinent to people who are writing about modern day places. I think a lot of authors often use a city they have lived in, because they have that precise familiarity and detail at their fingertips. I always think it’s a nice touch when I know an author is describing a place correctly,it makes it seem more realistic because I’ve been to that, say, Starbucks on such and such street so I can picture the characters chatting there.

    Cool topic 🙂

    • Sammy Bina November 17, 2010 at 12:56 AM #

      Chantal, I’m with you! My last project was a dystopian, and having the liberty to come up with a place entirely your own definitely has its appeal. That’s what I like about writing science fiction! I’m not great with fantasy, but I really enjoy reading about places that are entirely made from scratch; sometimes that’s more appealing than a city I already know.

  2. Ashley November 17, 2010 at 12:31 AM #

    This is great advice!

    Usually in my writing I take the liberty of coming up with my own towns, cities and streets, and just basing them off of cities in my own county 🙂

    • Sammy Bina November 17, 2010 at 12:58 AM #

      Ashley, that’s definitely the way to do it. Personally, I tend to write about places I’ve lived in, but I’ve certainly made up my own cities as well. At least in that case you don’t have to worry about getting any of the details wrong!

      • Ashley November 17, 2010 at 11:17 PM #

        You know it! There’s nothing more infuriating (or embarrassing;)) then having your credibility questioned.

        Plus I feel creating cities, neighborhoods and even states for your characters to live and thrive in adds more of your own personal touch as a writer, to the story and it’s universe. Do you agree?

  3. Meagan Spooner November 17, 2010 at 5:47 AM #

    Wow, I never would’ve thought of using Google Street View for writing research. That’s totally brilliant. I’ve been pining after a novel idea set in New Orleans but putting it off until I can go there again. Guess I have no excuse now… 😛

    Thanks, great advice!

    • Sammy Bina November 17, 2010 at 9:11 PM #

      Seriously, street view has saved my life so, so, so many times! Glad it has now helped someone else!

  4. Rowenna November 17, 2010 at 9:40 AM #

    So true! The internet is such a great resource for places–I write historicals, so current maps and google street view can be helpful or completely off-the-mark,depending, but people love to get online and reminisce about the coffee shop on the corner or the old theater lobby. I found so much good stuff just by poking around virtual haunts of former residents of the town I was writing about! There are even websites devoted to listing old theaters (the “movie palaces” of the 1930s and 40s)–so much cool stuff online 🙂 Just have to be a little creative sometimes lol!

    • Sammy Bina November 17, 2010 at 9:14 PM #

      That’s a good point — people who write historicals need to be a little more careful since, as we know, history changes. So the street view may not be helpful, but maps might be! Even paintings that you know to be historically accurate. Sorry, the art history nerd in me is coming out 😉

  5. Julie Eshbaugh November 17, 2010 at 10:28 AM #

    Great advice Sammy! Most of my settings are already known to me or completely made up. But I HAVE taken your Google Street View tip for little details (on which side of the street do people park on that block?) But your third bit of advice – ask people – is maybe the most obvious and the one I overlook the most! LOL. I guess we solitary writers like to find our answers ourselves. 🙂 Great post, Sammy, as always!

    • Sammy Bina November 17, 2010 at 9:14 PM #

      Thanks, Julie!

      Yeah, sometimes it’s the most obvious things that we forget. But I’ve totally used street view for the very same reason 😉 Obviously, great minds think alike.

  6. Susan November 18, 2010 at 6:41 AM #

    Great post and great advice. Getting a location right is critical for modern day. And historical fiction too — you HAVE to research (but at least there are fewer readers that will notice your flub-ups). Either way, you lose a reader when you show you didn’t do your research.

    It’s not *quite* the same, but I have read so many books/seen so many movies that I stopped halfway because I was appalled at how inaccurately they portrayed science and scientists. (Clearly that’s a little pet peeve of mine :))

    Google Street View is GREAT!!!!!

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