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  • Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith – Andrew Wilson (2004)

    In this Whitbread-shortlisted biography by Andrew Wilson, Patricia Highsmith is shown to be a woman who never found true happiness. Condemned by her own psychology to seek out inappropriate and often unavailable women, she never had a relationship that lasted longer than a few years. An almost life-long alcoholic, Highsmith’s happiest moments came from writing. She was misanthropic, lonely, shy, often hiding behind her curtain of black hair. But she was a brilliant writer, unappreciated in her own country, the United States, where publishers were obsessed with the categorisation of fiction. Highsmith’s fiction, like the woman herself, defied categorisation.

    As Andrew Wilson elegantly illustrates in Beautiful Shadow, the writer’s problems began early in life, in her family circumstances. Her biological father was almost unknown to her, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather (who gave her the Highsmith name.) The Oedipal complex is given a twist here since the young girl had an intense love for her mother, and a desire to kill her stepfather. Highsmith’s difficult love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, lay at the root of her problems with women, as Highsmith herself recognised:

    “I am married to my mother I shall never wed another.”

    Her mother, meanwhile, could see the teenage Highsmith was not “normal” and at one point advised her to “straighten up and fly right.”

    Although her sexuality was not clear-cut, Highsmith on the whole preferred women, but she constantly engaged in fantasy relationships with unavailable heterosexual women, or became involved with difficult or controlling partners.

    Patricia Highsmith’s feelings about herself as a woman were complicated by the fact that she saw herself at times as having a male identity. Although very beautiful, she had a tendency to dress slightly butch, softening it with a necklace or lipstick. Her fellow students at the all-female Barnard College thought she seemed “dashing.” She was certainly promiscuous, successfully luring both straight and non-heterosexual women into her bed.

    For a time, during a relationship with a man she hoped to marry, she underwent analysis, in the hopes of turning herself heterosexual. Her biographer records this well, setting it within the context of psychoanalytic attitudes of the period. As Wilson points out, the therapist’s interpretation of Highsmith’s case was “laughably simplistic and over-dependent on Freudian theory.” Not only that, such practitioners failed to recognise that Freud did not believe in “curing” homosexuals, but instead in counselling them into accepting their sexuality. Pat’s therapist recommended group therapy alongside married women with latent homosexual tendencies. Writing in her diary, Highsmith mused:

    “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.”

    Needless to say, the therapy proved useless.

    Highsmith was a passionate diarist. She left countless “cahiers,” her notebook/diaries which Wilson had access to. These cahiers go back to her youth. Consequently, the biography is very detailed, and the reader gets the impression that Wilson’s book could have been double or triple the size. One of the frustrating things is the inability to go into greater detail about individual episodes. This is not Wilson’s fault though, because he’s dealing with a huge volume of information. But it would be fascinating to read more of Highsmith’s words directly and perhaps it might be possible in some other book in the future. On the other hand, because of the density of information, it would be possible to read this biography a second time and get even more out of it, particularly if read in conjunction with her work, which Wilson analyses.

    Highsmith’s cahiers are a vital insight into her personal life, her psychology, and her mindset as a writer. From them, Wilson has been able to construct how Strangers on a Train came into being and where her most famous character, Ripley, came from. Something else that becomes obvious is the way she used her infatuations with women in her work. Her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (now Carol) was inspired by a woman, Kathleen Senn, who walked into the toy department of Bloomingdale’s where the twenty-seven-year-old Highsmith was working temporarily. Highsmith was immediately smitten with Senn but never met her again. However, she later tracked the woman down to her address and saw her in a car as it backed out the driveway and headed towards her. Writing about it later in her diary, Highsmith said:

    “For the curious thing yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too, as I went to see the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, too, a way of gaining complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one’s attentions?) To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.”

    Kathleen Senn became the unsuspecting muse who inspired The Price of Salt, a book remarkable for its happy ending, something not previously seen in lesbian literature in the 1950s. In spite of the fact that Highsmith never had any contact with Senn, Wilson managed to track down the woman’s surviving relatives, and he brings out the other more poignant side of this brief encounter. What Highsmith never knew is that the glamorous, sophisticated older woman she encountered in Bloomingdale’s had a history of mental health problems. Sometime before the publication of The Price of Salt, Senn walked into her garage, closed the door, and switched on the engine of her car, never knowing the part she’d played in literary history.

    Throughout her life, Highsmith would use the women around her, lovers or women admired from afar, as her muses. In spite of this, Highsmith was considered by some to be a misogynist. Andrew Wilson, though, shows the difficulties in such an easy reading of Highsmith’s character. The women in Pat’s life lived in the shadow of her mother. Highsmith was a shy, lonely character, and her behaviour at times could be misinterpreted. There’s no question she was a difficult human being to be around. But she had her admirers as well as her detractors. Some people had a better understanding of her nature. She was a brutally honest person, which didn’t always serve her well, though some admired her for it. Her political opinions were hard to define. Some could be termed left-wing liberal, whereas others veered to the right, and included anti-Semitic tendencies as well as a virulent hatred of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

    Highsmith spent a great deal of her adulthood in Europe. In exile, she watched in horror as the U.S. went into various conflicts, and her visits back to America often served to confirm her opinion that the country had lost its way. She saw it as a modern-day Roman Empire, and her criticisms wove their way into her fiction.

    Highsmith wasn’t a popular writer in America during her lifetime. The irony is the way she’s been embraced there since her death. Wilson believes Highsmith was a writer ahead of her time. Her books, which some have seen as evil and immoral, don’t tread an easy path. She was more interested in psychopaths than do-gooders, and these psychopaths were often the viewpoint characters, drawing the reader into their amoral worlds.

    In spite of this, she was a gentle person in real life and a pacifist. Generally, she preferred animals to people and had a life-long love of cats and snails. Wilson documents how Highsmith smuggled her pet snails into France under her breasts. Snails and cats are somehow fitting companions for this misanthropic woman. Her love of animals would take a comic dark turn in some of her short stories, where animals got their revenge on humans, particularly in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder.

    For those wishing to track down her publications, especially the short story collections, there’s a list of her books at the beginning of the biography. Wilson does not ignore the significance of her short stories, summarising their plots and analysing them along with the novels.

    He’s also managed to get some quite revealing information from some of Highsmith’s lovers, as well as those who worked with her. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t set Highsmith within a heterosexist reading of human sexuality or gender. He clearly has enormous sympathy and respect for “Pat” even as he depicts her, warts and all.

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is an exceptionally well-written and researched book. Wilson has done a fine job in pulling together the strands of this remarkable woman’s life.

    This review was originally written in 2004.

  • Developmental Edit or Manuscript Critique?

    Manuscript Critique or Developmental Edit
    Developmental edit or manuscript critique?

    What is the difference between a manuscript critique and a full developmental edit? What can you expect from each service and which might be best for your circumstances?

    The basics

    Developmental editing focuses on the so-called “big picture” elements of a book – the plot, characterisation, theme, structure and so on. Just to confuse things further, it’s also known as content editing, substantive editing, or structural editing.

    Whatever you want to call it, it’s the first step in professional editing, often preceded by writing group feedback and beta readers.

    When a writer wants their manuscript critiqued, they’re still in the process of polishing their overall story. Copyediting focuses on language, grammar, punctuation, consistency (including the use of a style guide), and legal issues like copyright law, trademark law, and libel issues. And that’s just a few of the things a copyeditor will deal with.

    By the time you get to a proofreader, most of the errors should be gone.

    Of course, not everyone can afford one round of editing, let alone several.

    So, what are the benefits of a developmental edit or manuscript critique? An editor brings fresh eyes to the entire manuscript. They can see what’s there, not what the writer thinks is there. During rewrites, it’s all too easy for a writer to remove things by accident. Writers also have a different picture of what’s on the page. They can fill in the gaps. An editor’s job is to point out those gaps so they can be plugged before the book is published.

    What’s a developmental edit?

    You should expect the following in a full developmental edit:

    • An editorial letter
    • A copy of your manuscript with track comments or commentary/corrections/suggestions in the margins

    I’m going to deal with the manuscript commentary first. What should you expect there?

    • Track commenting or other editorial input in the submitted manuscript
    • These comments deal with both macro and micro issues
    • The macro (big picture) issues are likely to be further addressed in the accompanying editorial letter
    • The micro issues are usually not important enough for the editorial letter unless they represent a repeating problem – in which case they become a macro issue.
    • Some editors also offer some level of line editing in the manuscript, but there’s a limit to how much is useful since the writer is likely to rewrite their book
    • Some level of line editing can be used as a sample of what to do, as a coaching service, teaching the writer how to handle a particular issue in their next draft
    • At its best, a good DE can offer constructive critique beyond the manuscript in question – it should also offer advice that can be carried over into the writer’s next book

    So, what about the accompanying editorial letter? Bearing in mind this is a full developmental edit and not a manuscript critique (which I address further down), the letter doesn’t have to carry the weight of the entire editorial commentary.

    • The editorial letter should acknowledge early on that the author is under no obligation to follow all the suggestions made by the editor
    • Editorial letters often contain the proviso that the editor may have misread certain things and to disregard any suggestions that may result
    • If the writer has asked the editor to check out certain issues they’re concerned about, the editor will address those questions somewhere in the editorial letter (and possibly the manuscript itself)
    • In general, the letter should focus on the overarching issues and address the main points
    • It should provide a clear roadmap for revision
    • It should not consist of a long list of disconnected problems and no overall solutions
    • The editor should be looking for the smallest number of solutions that fix the largest number of problems
    • The letter (and the track commenting in the manuscript) should address things the writer does well – since writers often don’t understand their own strengths, let alone how such skills can be used in other parts of their manuscript)

    Some editors also include supplementary material like diagrams, book maps, or a style guide.

    A DE should be a workable plan the writer can understand and implement. It should also be a plan that has anticipated the fallout that occurs when you start making changes. Making one significant change alone can set off a chain reaction throughout the manuscript. Imagine making several changes!

    That’s the kind of thing an editor should anticipate. An editor never knows what suggestions the writer will take on board, and what will be rejected, so this is not a science. However, I’ll offer up examples of what I call fallout or the domino effect.

    In a novel I wrote, I later figured out (through doing a critique of my own manuscript) that a viewpoint change would solve numerous problems.

    • It allowed me to get closer to the characters even though I’d moved from first to third
    • My main modern character no longer had to know what happened in the past
    • Switching to third allowed a more immediate experience of the past, including moments of tension – previously many events had been recorded in diaries or letters
    • And of course, people in real life self-censor in diaries and letters, especially in the past, so written personal accounts are not the best means to represent the more intimate facts of a character’s life
    • Moving to third allowed easier point of view shifts, including within chapters, which then allowed me to tightly weave the historic backstory with the modern story
    • And that led to serious restructuring where material became more evenly distributed throughout the manuscript
    • This also helped pace and other problems

    The point is that one suggestion can have multiple effects on a manuscript. And not necessarily in a good way. Which is why an editor needs to consider the possible knock-on effects of their suggestions.

    On the other hand, if an editor can come up with core solutions that solve multiple problems, it leads to a clearer plan of action. The downside for the writer, at least in some instances, is a more substantial rewrite than they’d hoped for. However, if your central plot is solid, and your characters are vibrant, you already have solid foundations for the next draft.

    So let’s look at the more abbreviated manuscript critique service.

    What can you expect in a manuscript critique?

    First of all, there’s no track commenting or editing of the manuscript. This means that the editorial letter has to carry the full weight of the feedback.

    Although manuscript critique services are cheaper, that doesn’t necessarily mean the editorial letter is shorter. Prices have more to do with the amount of work involved and the time it takes to complete it. Authors on a budget might also request an abbreviated service. This option includes an edit of a portion of the manuscript or even a triage edit. The latter focuses on the main problems and lets the smaller issues slide.

    So, with a manuscript critique you should expect the following:

    • It should come with the usual acknowledgement that you don’t have to take all the advice it contains
    • If you’ve communicated concerns about your manuscript – maybe you’re worried your characters aren’t fleshed out enough – the editor should address these concerns somewhere in the letter
    • The editorial letter may follow a template structure, dealing with different topics such as plot, theme, character, etc, each under different headings. This is also true of a DE letter
    • Not all critique letters follow a template structure – I had one where the editor spent the first part of the letter addressing my concerns, and then the second half addressing her own, which she listed in chronological order rather than under subject headings. So she started at the beginning of my manuscript and worked her way to the end
    • The letter should deal with the big issues and some of the medium level issues at least. But it’s less likely to deal with very small problems in the manuscript unless they follow a pattern
    • A good manuscript critique should be able to assess the current state of your manuscript and offer advice on how to improve it

    As for the length of the editorial letter, this will vary according to the needs of your manuscript, the working practices of the editor and the size and extent of the critique you purchased.

    Also, listing issues and problems separately without an overarching plan can lead to a longer letter that isn’t necessarily as helpful as one that focuses on the central issues. So, the length of the letter is not a sign of how useful it will be or the quality of the service.

    How to deal with a critique or DE

    So, how should a writer handle editorial feedback?

    I’ve been on the end of an editorial letter myself. I can confirm that there’s a lot to take on board. Inevitably, a full DE has even more information to digest.

    As an aside, one of my tutors claimed she’d never met a writer who’d read all the way through the track commenting in their manuscript before they started revising. My first thought was that’s exactly what I would do as a writer. I’d want to see the bigger picture with the feedback before I started revising. But how useful it would be might relate to whether a novel is written in chronological order. If scenes appear out of sequence, the editor’s commentary at the end might matter more for rewriting the beginning. In a chronological narrative, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much.

    But whether you have an editorial letter or full DE, don’t be surprised if you need weeks to digest it. Some comments and information might hit you first – especially those you’re more resistant to. There might be gems buried in the letter that you initially miss. You need to read the letter more than once. Then you can put it away for a while before returning to it. This is especially true if you don’t like the feedback.

    Good editorial feedback should be what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. The latter is simply a waste of money.

    Some editors will include a time frame in which you can send them questions or request clarification. After that, you have to pay them for more consultation time. There are some who will not include much aftercare.

    I think for less experienced authors, aftercare is important. But it does eat into an editor’s schedule.

    A full developmental edit can take around four to six weeks depending on the length and complexity of the manuscript. The editor has to read the manuscript several times. They make notes, add track commenting, draw up and organise the editorial letter, etc, and check they haven’t missed anything.

    Developmental edit or manuscript critique

    Which service is best for your needs?

    If you’re intending to send your manuscript to an agent, then you don’t need a full developmental edit. Of course, you might want one, but you don’t need it. Technically, you don’t need a manuscript critique either. Agents don’t expect to see perfect novels landing in their inboxes. However, many authors do choose to have some level of manuscript critique. You can opt for abbreviated versions that focus on the main issues while letting the small stuff slide.

    If you’re submitting to agents and getting knockbacks, it’s worth having a manuscript critique. That way you can see what should be done to improve your book. Then you can revise and continue submitting.

    If you reach the end of the line with agents or the traditional publishing industry, you still have the option of the indie route.

    Indie authors most benefit from a full developmental edit. However, the service is sadly beyond the reach of most price-wise. However, it’s worth keeping an eye out for special deals and newer editors who probably won’t charge as much. I’ve listed good DE courses below so you know what to look for in an editor’s training.

    • Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory – Liminal Pages
    • Developmental Editing: In Practice – Liminal Pages
    • Introduction to Developmental Editing: Book-Length Fiction and Creative Nonfiction – Author-Editor Clinic
    • Developmental Editing of Fiction – Beginning, Editorial Freelancers Association
    • Developmental Editing of Fiction – Intermediate, EFA
    • Developmental Editing of Fiction – Advanced, EFA

    It’s worth point out that the Author-Editor Clinic course offers trainee editors the opportunity to write a manuscript critique letter in their final assignment and have it reviewed by the course tutor. However, it’s optional and not obligatory.

    The EFA Advanced DE course focuses on a full developmental edit with an editorial letter and track commenting in the manuscript. This is a very intensive course and the final edit and letter are reviewed by the course tutor.

    Want to try an opening chapters developmental edit?

    I’m currently offering a developmental editing package of editorial letter plus a copy of the manuscript with track commenting. Current price is $75 or £60 for 10,000 words.

  • How to establish a writing routine

    While some writers can finish a book in a fast sprint, for most of us it’s more of a marathon. A writing project can take months or even years to complete, requiring commitment, freedom from distraction, and, hopefully, a writing routine. It also helps if you can build up confidence and self-belief, not to mention setting reasonable goals. Self-sabotage is all too easy.

    First and foremost, before we even look at writing standards or quality, it’s necessary to talk about establishing a regular writing routine. Because this is how you build up writing stamina. Without that, finishing any longer work is going to be difficult. Certainly in the shorter term.

    Establishing a writing routine

    When you first start writing, it’s a bit like taking up exercise or learning to play a musical instrument. You need to keep at it. You need to establish a routine. And the reason is somewhat more complex than it first appears.

    First and foremost, there’s a neurological reason why you need to practice. It’s to do with neural pathways. Firing cells become more and more efficient over time. And it’s the reason why you have to concentrate more while learning a new skill – but at a later point, you can do it almost without thinking. In fact, once you have mastered a skill, the parts of the brain associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering take over. This is the point where you are ‘in the zone’. Musicians, athletes, and others experience this.

    So, if you want to establish a writing routine, you need to work at it. But research also shows that building up a skill slowly works best. The ability to correct yourself when making a mistake, thereby refining your skills, is better achieved that way.

    Additionally, sleep plays an important part in strengthening the new pathways, with reverse firing or signaling during sleep. It’s therefore important to get a good sleep when you’re learning a new skill.

    Setting goals and boundaries

    Establishing a regular writing routine means a number of things. Firstly, you have to find time in your day and set aside all other tasks. Even the tasks other people think are more important. This could be housework, working in the garden, cooking, DIY, or just generally being at the beck and call of others.

    You have to make it clear that your writing time is yours. It’s quite possible, even likely, that you won’t have a lot of support for this. And if you are apologetic about wanting writing time, other people are less likely to take you seriously. You need to be clear about how important writing is to you. Then try negotiating time in a way that also supports the interests of those around you. Aim for some give and take.

    Start low. Aim high

    There’s no point telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words a day from the start, or even 500 words a day. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to write higher word counts early on when they’re still in the honeymoon period of writing on a regular basis. You’re fired up, eager, and you might write more than you expect.

    The trouble, though, is this period is unlikely to last.

    One technique for establishing a very long-term writing habit that worked for me came from two pages in a large ring-binder diary. These two pages had a calendar for the entire year. Six months on one page, six on the other. Three months on the top half of the page, three on the bottom. With the days of each month listed by name and date, and a brief line space next to each.

    So, I tried an experiment. Towards the end of that January, which is when I happened to start the trial, I recorded daily word counts in these short line spaces. I also noted editing, rewrite word counts, and general note-taking word counts.

    Then, I counted up the total word count for each month, each quarter, each half-year, and finally the entire year. The overall trajectory was upwards.

    I started in the honeymoon period, felt like I was getting the habit of daily writing. Then, at some point, it became a nuisance. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do that day. Maybe I didn’t have the time, etc, etc.

    But I knew I had to push through this phase. It was an interesting experience. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t something I did when I was in the mood. I was forcing myself to do it.

    This could mean writing less some days, but since I included small word counts as being just as legitimate, I didn’t become demoralised. In fact, I came to understand that the amount of time spent telling myself I didn’t have the time, was potential writing time! Maybe 30-100 words or more of writing time.

    And writing time included rewriting and making notes. Which also made things easier, not to mention more realistic. Because this is where most writing work takes place – the planning stage, the research, the editing and rewriting.

    Eventually, I broke through that “this is just annoying now” phase of having to write daily. On the other side lay the absolute need to write daily. I was no longer pushing myself. It came naturally. The day was incomplete without some writing.

    By the end of the first year, I had written around 120,000 in just over eleven months. In another couple of years, it was beyond 250,000 and continued to rise. Larger word counts came more easily as time went on. I think that makes sense. The process becomes more efficient.

    I also think aiming too high too early is a form of self-sabotage. If you don’t reach your goal, you feel like a failure, and you quit.

    But you’re not a failure. You just needed to set more reasonable goals.

    Go easy on light writing days. And when you have an established writing routine, it’s easier to skip a day or two without losing your momentum. It’s much easier to lose your momentum early on.

    To reiterate:

    • Establishing a writing routine is the number one priority
    • That means it doesn’t matter how much you write in any one day
    • This is because establishing a habit is harder than knocking off 1000 words every now and then
    • Establishing a habit means not slacking off on busy days – 30 words will do
    • Accepting that 30 words or 100 words is “good enough” takes away unreasonable expectations
    • Counting up the total word count at the end of each month allows you to see the bigger picture
    • Counting up the quarters, the half-year and the total annual count also means those smaller word counts contribute to the bigger picture
    • It’s also important to note down editing, rewriting or research activities

    Avoiding online distractions

    The next issue is how to find time when there are so many distractions around and the modern attention span is not what it used to be.

    I totally recommend either switching the internet off or using social media blockers. I’ve written about this in an earlier post. But to summarise, you need to identify the sites that are your biggest time wasters and block them. Or block the entire internet if necessary.

    Try something like Cold Turkey. You can set a timer. You might find yourself trying to check something online on instinct – remember those established neural pathways? It’s a difficult habit to break. So give yourself a hand with a social media blocker. Twitter or whatever will still be there when the time is up, but you’ll have some writing to show for your time offline.

    Also, don’t compete with other people when it comes to writing. Compete with yourself. That’s why the weekly/monthly/quarterly/half year/annual wordcounts are so useful. It doesn’t matter what other people in the Twitter writing community are doing. It only matters what you’re doing.

    Useful reading:

    Learning rewires the brain: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain

    Also recommended – Myelin Facilitation of Whole Brain Neuroplasticity: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/myelin-facilitation-of-whole-brain-neuroplasticity

  • Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Novel

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online with the help of the internet. 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.

    The first case that comes to mind 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, 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.)

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    Even if you knew nothing about the writer, it’s clear from the outset she 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.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    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.

    However, I’m not going to name the person because they live a little closer to home! (Cough.) Anyway, the second author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.

    As it happened, I’d never visited the European city even though I’d done a ton of research on it, so I was disappointed by the lack of detail.

    I felt this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since there’s something called street lights, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.

    I 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 locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location 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. Not secondary and background locations. Though it’s still possible to give a stronger sense of place even when it occupies fewer pages.

    But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?

    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 of the day to day life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.

    If you’re of the Dan Brown school of novel writing, you might well want to include famous places a tourist would visit on a trip to Paris or Florence, etc. It even makes for an interactive experience since your reader can go off and visit the locations in the book – especially if your books are that famous!

    But if you’re after something more realistic and low key, you need to leave the tourist track behind. Because it’s what’s off the beaten track that captures the reality of a place. The side streets, the small cafes, the places far away from tourists. Especially if your characters aren’t tourists in the first place.

    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. To ignore it is a mistake. Especially if you’re the kind of writer who sees locations as characters in their own right.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    I’m not suggesting you write long descriptive passages about your locations. The modern reader’s attention span can sometimes struggle with novels from the 1990s let alone further back. No, readers don’t want to read a lot of descriptive passages, but they do appreciate a strong sense of place. After all, many read to escape to places they’ve never visited.

    Of course, in a lot of novels, location is somewhat less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar locations, try not to leave your reader feeling that one location is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.