(This is a crossposting, at the suggestion of Erastes.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about researching locations for writing purposes ever since my visit to Los Angeles last month. I don’t believe you need to have been somewhere to write about it. When we write historical there’s only so much we can do to see an actual location. Even if we visit a place, the feel has changed. The look has changed. The people have changed. All the same, I think most authors would agree that, if at all possible, we want to see those places, whether we’re setting a story there in the past, present, or future.
Writing something set in a existing modern or historical geographic location, which we have never been to ourselves, creates many challenges. For me, it also creates a huge sense of inadequacy. I have this terrible, screechy voice in my mind telling me other people will see right through my shallow words to the nonsense underneath and know that I have never set foot in my own setting. If travel expenses were no issue, I would personally visit every place I have any interest in setting a story, and take detailed photos and notes. But this is not an option for me. As well as for a lot of writers.
On the other hand, making stuff up is what we do best. Authors do not need to have been somewhere to tell you what it was like. That’s one reason they’re authors.
My own sense of feeling frustrated that I cannot visit every location I wish was increased by the aforementioned trip to LA:
I was in LA for less than 24 hours, yet came away with a strong sense of the city that I will never forget, and which I could never have gained from just reading about the place. There is a universal theme in California, north (which I have much greater knowledge of, having lived there for some time) or south, of examining people.
Appearance is not just important in LA. It is you. Everywhere you go, everything you do, from the way you walk to the way you dress to what you order in a restaurant, is under intense, constant, and completely unabashed scrutiny. Not exactly the surprise of the decade, right? This is Hollywood after all. Yet, it was a surprise. Not the fact that everyone was image-obsessed in LA, but the feel of that obsession. There’s a thick, palpable cloud of stares and fleeting glances; eye contact and body-sweeping gazes; and the unceasing edginess of people who know they are being sized-up just as they are sizing you up.
For someone used to Seattle, where eye-contact with anyone you pass on the street, or in a coffee shop, is about as common as talking clams, this experience was pretty horrifying to me. It’s not something I could have ever imagined the intensity of without being in with it. The cool indifference of one human being to another based on snap visual assessments, and the instant decision of whether of not this person can do anything for them, cannot really be appreciated without going in person and feeling the force of this collective energy.
Then there are other things you wouldn’t learn about LA from a guide book: Cabs not stopping for red lights: Every car in the city being no more than two years old: The atmosphere of a pool-side party after dark: And the lying. As noted, I was there for a very brief time. But in that time, I was lied to often.
These kinds of details give us a feel for location that can be duplicated even if we have never really been there. It just makes writing about the place a whole lot easier and clearer in our own minds if we have been there.
Here’s to lots of research trips down the road.
You can find Jordan at http://www.jordantaylorbooks.com