Friday, May 22, 2009

Choose a setting

In my last blog, I wrote about the first question everybody asks me (why I write in English and not in my mother language German.) As both my novels are situated in the Seattle area, people often ask next: "How come you know Seattle so well?"

I have to admit something. I don't know Seattle all that well. I spent two wonderful days there twelve or fourteen years ago (I don't even recall the year), and decided on the spot that it was a city where I would love to live.

When I started to write, I had to choose a city, any city, and so I took Seattle in spite of all the instructions "write what you know". I simply couldn't imagine to write about the town where I lived because that was just the place I was trying to escape with my writing. The thought alone to write about my every day place made me dry up inside. Don't get me wrong; I wasn't unhappy. But I was bored. And I needed something else.

So I bought several travel guides, asked my mother to lend me her picture book about Seattle with huge scenic pictures, started reading Seattle newspapers online, googled everything from real estate to nurseries to hospitals, and, most important of all, I immersed myself in google maps. With my newly acquired knowledge, I decided where my heroine would live, determined where she had to go, and entered both addresses into google maps. Then I chose the satellite view and zoomed as close as I could. A bit scary, that, if you think about it. I could make out if there were many trees in the area, if the houses had gardens, where the cars were parked, if large streets in the area could make noise, and plenty of other things. I did miss the third dimension, though. Even a skyscraper looks kind of flat from a bird's eye view!

Next, I hunted up webcams in the area and made sure my heroine walked by just there, so I could include convincing details of the scenery. And when I was done, I gave the whole to a friend who lived in the area so she could check if I had made a huge blunder. So far, I haven't heard an outcry . . .

How about you? Have you ever decided to write about a place you didn't know well? I assume the process is similar if you write historical novels, only more difficult!


Carol Hutchens said...

Wonderful post, Beate! Thanks for the great tips.

LaVerne St. George said...

Wow, when I started writing, Google maps didn't exist and exploring a place electronically was hardly possible. I relied on tour books, postcards, paper maps and published journals of travelers. With the Web and all its resources, there's a whole other way to do this that I never considered. A mature writer CAN learn new techniques. Thanks, Beate!

Elisabeth Rose said...

So far my books have been set in places I know. I used my brother-in-law's Sydney house and suburb in Coming Home, an invented town in Stuck but in an area of the state I know well and I often use the floorplan of my daughter's current place of residence. She's moved quite a bit in Inner Sydney so it's very handy. I get to know different suburbs both visually and for public transport etc. I also used her CBD work place for Gina's office references in Stuck.

My next release Outback Hero is set in outback Australia. The town I invented is a typical little country town--a pub, a general store, a petrol station/garage and about five houses.

I use the online 'house for sale' listings and take virtual tours of expensive houses when I need something up market!

Christine Bush said...

This brought back some great thoughts. My second book, many years ago, was set on the rocky coast of Maine. I had never been there. I did all the "research" of the time (so different than today with the internet). Several readers wrote and thanked me for "making their memories of Maine come back alive".. and "how obvious it was that I knew and loved Maine so"-- I felt rather guilty, so I quickly planned a trip to see it myself!
Thanks for the fun post!

Sandy Cody said...

Very nice post, Beate. It's full of helpful tips on gathering information on a locale, something we can all use. My Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor series is set in Memphis, where we lived for 6 years - a long time ago. Like you, I use the internet and guidebooks to keep my info current.

Beate Boeker said...

I'm delighted to hear that you found my post helpful . . . and glad that others are also occasionally writing about places they don't know inside out.