Avoid this location issue in your novel
In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.
One example is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.
It’s a hugely ambitious novel and can sweep the reader up for days on end. However, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)
Rice really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.
But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.
Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.
A tale of three cities
This second published author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.
The European capital was strangely lacking in detail compared to the other two. It felt like this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since street lights exist, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.
It felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.
Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.
When writing about familiar and unfamiliar settings in the same novel, it’s best to avoid this location issue. Therefore, you need to ensure your locations are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means research.
This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book.
But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?
Research, research, research
In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something about the daily life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.
I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there.
Of course, in a lot of novels, location is less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar settings, try not to leave your reader feeling that one is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.
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