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.”
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.