My usual advice to my students is to write about what they know in order to retain the sense of verisimilitude of characters and locations — but this is not always possible. You may need a scene to play out in a country you never visited, or include a character you’ve never encountered for real — after all, I don’t know about you, but I can’t place the last time I chatted to a Martian.
That’s where research and a sensitive imagination come in. For make no mistake, location deeply influences many aspects of character. The energetic rhythm of Philadelphia in Witness, differs from the slow paced life on an Amish farm. The speech patterns of New York’s Working Girl differ from those of the West in Electric Horseman.
If you were writing The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, you would want use your knowledge of the oppressive heat, humidity, and constant rain in the tropics in order to capture your characters’ sense of oppression and claustrophobia.
If you were writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest you would need, like Dale Wasserman who wrote the play based on Ken Kesey’s novel, to visit several asylums. Dale even arranged with one cooperative psychiatrist to have himself committed in order to do undercover research close up.
In my forthcoming novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, lives in Mission Beach on Northern Queensland’s tropical coast. The heat, dress, and even the way houses are constructed to withstand the cyclones of the region are integral to the authentic rendition of the story. I spend several years in the area and lived through one category five cyclone, so additional research was minimal.
The advice is sound: Write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the actual locations you intend to render, or watch as many documentaries on the area, and do as many interviews with the people that are familiar with it, as you can. Your writing will be more authentic for it.
Write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps by conducting rigorous research.
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