Midnight in Paris, A Morning in Rome? by Eileen Register

I’d love to write a romantic story that features the exotic ambiance of Paris or Rome.  It would be fun to write about traveling across the savannahs and through the jungles of Africa.  Rio would be so exciting!

So why do I use my home state of Florida as the backdrop for my novels? Is it because I’m lazy and don’t want to do research? Eh, maybe a tiny bit. For the most part, though, I want to concentrate on my characters and storyline. By writing about a setting with which I am very familiar, I am able to put most of my effort into creating realistic characters and dialogue with which to develop a story that is colorful and interesting.

One prime example of this is the setting for Book II of my Grisholm County Series, Sylvan Creek. My hometown of Sebring, Florida was originally designed with a circular park at its core and streets branching out in all directions from that circle. Sylvan Creek follows the same pattern except that the park is much bigger and there’s a creek running through it.  I enhanced the fond memories I have of my hometown and made the setting for the story even more interesting and much better as a backdrop for the murder that takes place.

I’m very visual and find that writing about things I’ve seen and persons I’ve met is a more comfortable way for me to develop stories. I’m sure I could read a few National Geographic magazines and learn what I need to know to write a story set in some exotic place. There are plenty of pictures available online and in books that would give me the visual boost I need in order to be able to write about such places. However, nothing would be as real to me through research as it is through my own experiences.

As an English teacher, I always encouraged my students to “write what you know” when they were doing creative writing assignments. Instead of reaching to write about something they had little knowledge about, they would start out by thinking about a place, person, thing, or event in their own lives. From that origin, they could spring forth into a fantasy, a true story, a poem, or even a play. The result might end up having a setting nothing like their own lives, but it would be grounded in what they knew.

I’m not saying everyone should write only about places they’ve been, people they’ve met, or things they’ve experienced – far from it! What I am saying is that it works for me. If a writer is having trouble getting the story rolling, perhaps simplifying its development will help. Choose two most important aspects of the story – which, for me are plot and characterization – and concentrate on them. Selecting a setting that takes less time to develop because it resembles a real place the writer has experienced will free his/her mind to concentrate on other things.

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3 thoughts on “Midnight in Paris, A Morning in Rome? by Eileen Register

  1. Thanks for your helpful post, Eileen!

    I agree with your statement, “…I always encouraged my students to “write what you know” when they were doing creative writing assignments. Instead of reaching to write about something they had little knowledge about, they would start out by thinking about a place, person, thing, or event in their own lives.”

    I, too, followed a well-worn path as the setting for my first novel, “Maggie Vaults Over the Moon,” which is set waist deep in wheat country here in rural Kansas; places where I worked with my senses on full alert, as a newspaper reporter and editor.

    This was not my natural habitat. Born and raised in Wichita, “going country” was like being on a National Geographic assignment. Covering everyday events, like harvest, forced me to look and listen and question everything, with no preconceived notions or assumptions.

    Attention to detail served me well in my newspaper work, and so I was tolerated, if not always accepted, by the townsfolk. Imagine my relief when people from rural Kansas responded favorably to my new story! (http://tinyurl.com/bg9nfav)

    I think the dangers in writing about a place I’d love to visit, but haven’t, or, a sport I’d always wanted to play, but didn’t, is that there are lots of people who’ve really been there, or, who’ve actually played that. I’m afraid if my story doesn’t ring true to them, well… I don’t want to read “DNF” (did not finish).

    Like you, I would love to write exotic spy novels and travel the globe, but, I plan to follow your advice. My best path as a writer is to co-create from the abundant substance available to me, close to home. With this in mind, my second novel is emerging from the neighborhood where I grew up, right here in Wichita.

  2. I’ve always been cautious about setting stories in foreign places that I haven’t been to because I feel like readers will know I’ve never been there, no matter how much research I do. I can tell, when I read a book, if the author has been to a place or not. It’s all in the details. Referring to a popular place by a local name, having the characters rave about an out-of-the-way restaurant that only someone who’d been there would know about, etc.

  3. Although I think Google Earth is the best thing since sliced bread, I tend to agree with you about choosing familiar locations, Eileen. I tend to wander off the beaten path in my writing, but I don’t wander to places I’ve never been. I did make an exception with Cali, Colombia for The Tangled Web, but it was hard work. Search as I did, I couldn’t find a restaurant where Maria and Jorge would have lunch. Eventually I was forced to skirt the issue. I’ve been to Prague, and walked by the restaurant where Pavel and his crony meet for dinner, but I’ve never actually been inside that restaurant. My description was pulled from the internet. They even have a wine list and menu posted on their page.

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