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December 31, 2010 4:09 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to get to know a place fairly well, without actually visiting it?

I'm a writer and while I'd love to be able to visit all of the cities and places I'd like to set my stories in, that's just not possible for a lot of reasons. However, I don't want to set my story in Paris, for instance, and come off as pretentious to a reader who has actually been there.

Do you think it's possible to get to know a city well enough to have a fictional character move through it and interact with people in it, simply by reading some books or watching documentaries?

If so, what films/books/media would you suggest? While I'm mostly interested in European cities right now, I'm open to any suggestion concerning any city. Who knows? It might make an excellent locale for my next story!

posted by joyeuxamelie to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I do not believe it is possible. Although it's possible to pick up lots of facts through other media, you're only ever going to get someone else's impression of what the Feel of the place is. You're never going to be able to say something new about it, because all you're going to be doing it rehacking other people's feeling of the city. Your story may not be about the city, but if you're giving it a specific local that place can't help but influence your story. Write what you know.
posted by stoneweaver at 4:15 PM on December 31, 2010

Agreed. You might learn enough to give a sense of place to someone who hasn't been there, but the real test is someone who knows the place, and I doubt they'd be as easily drawn in.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:17 PM on December 31, 2010

Tough question, the answer of which revolves around the specific quality of your imagination and your research. As for films/books etc, the sidetrack that comes to mind is an an interview I heard once with Timothy Findley where he spoke of his research for his book The Wars, much of which took place in the trenches of World War One. Basically, he built himself a trench in a muddy field and lived in it for a period of days.
posted by philip-random at 4:19 PM on December 31, 2010

You can do your best, but I don't think you can avoid the dilemma raised by stoneweaver.

If you know people from (or who've spent a lot of time in) the cities you're interested in you can ask them to read your work. That's about the only thing I can think of that you didn't already mention.
posted by idest at 4:21 PM on December 31, 2010

You do not mention using Google Earth and it's Street View. It obviously can't beat being there but it can show you the store on the corner or the view from a bridge etc.
posted by episodic at 4:26 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it can be faked if you research assiduously, but it is extremely hard to really capture authenticity that way. Talking to people who know the city well may help but what I find most telling in both travel writing and fiction are the "little big moments". By that I mean the things you, as a visitor, notice, that are not clichés, not found in guide books and travelogues, not the well-known stuff. The small moments, incidents and experiences that really happened to you. You can't fake that stuff, and it tends to be that stuff that really convinces and seduces the reader.
posted by Decani at 4:28 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think it is possible - Martin Cruz Smith wrote the superlative Gorky Park at the height of the Cold War, without ever having set foot in not only Moscow, but also the Soviet Union. Russians, Muscovites and other Russian experts were shocked to discover this. I remember reading an interview with him where he goes in to detail about it; people really were surprised, including academics and other experts.
posted by smoke at 4:29 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

One more thing: I think you should think deeply about why you think you need to set your story in Paris or some other European city without being there. What do you think it's going to add over being set somewhere you have been? Are you using it as a plot crutch or because it seems cool? If you don't have a really good reason that's really intrinsic to the story, it's probably better to set it somewhere you've been. If it really is intrinsic to the story, it's hard to understand how you could really need to tell a story about a place you've never been. (Unless it is a story about longing to be in that place.) Places are deeply unique. I grew up traveling, and I've been a traveler all my life. Many stories are not about a place, so it doesn't make sense to artificially place them in a specific place you have never been. The other stories, the ones that are about a place, the place is a character. Anyone who has been there will know if you're trying to talk about it and have never visited. It would be like trying to pass yourself off as the close personal friend of Jon Stewart having never met the guy. You might fool the people who have seen his picture, but you would never fool the people who have actually been around him, no matter how good your research was.

I think you'll write a better story if you have a clear idea of why it's so important that it be in a particular place. If it doesn't matter so much, set it somewhere else.
posted by stoneweaver at 4:29 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, no offense stoneweaver, but that's an hilariously naive view of novel writing. OP, tonnes of writers write about places they never been. Thousands do it. Some more successfully than others, but rest assured, it can and is done well. Cruz Smith is just the most visible and successful example that came to my mind.
posted by smoke at 4:54 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

tonnes of writers write about places they never been

Seconding that. I think it really depends on how much importance you want to assign to the setting. It's perfectly possible to use a place as a backdrop without knowing it that well, but you probably won't be able to make it shine, so to speak.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 5:03 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Would it be possible for you to get to know Paris fairly well, even if you did visit it? I don't mean to be glib: I ask this seriously, because maybe you need to think about what you mean by "know a place fairly well". I'm not sure I know anywhere as well as the makers of, say, /The Wire/ know Baltimore, or Joyce new Dublin. I've lived in Rio de Janeiro for two years, I learned Portuguese as an adult: can I say I really know the city? Each time I go out for drinks with locals, there's some other something that turns up that I didn't know or imagine.

But I'm also skeptical of people saying you can't write about it. People write historical fiction successfully, without having been to The Past, and there's no reason that you can't have an original and interesting thoughts from reading "someone else's impression" or consuming other media. (So I disagree with stoneweaver's first comment, even though I agree strongly with his/her second comment.)

More concretely, I recommend you read some Amitav Ghosh; both Shadow Lines and Antique Land deal seriously and explicitly with what it means to know a place, and the kind of ways one can know a place. In these books, that's an interest of author and characters alike (I've suggested these because those are the ones I've read by him; maybe his other books would be just as useful.)
posted by squishles at 5:10 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to get to know a place fairly well, without actually visiting it?

Consider that people write all the time about places they've never been.

* Outer space.
* Ancient Rome.
* Hogwarts.

It's just research and imagination. When you get hung up on being "pretentious to a reader who has actually been there," you're allowing yourself to get their little nerd footprints all over your pages.

Now, clearly, if you're writing about Paris, you can't place Notre Dame right next to the Eiffel Tower. It has to work on a fundamental level.

But serve your story, not the nerdiest of your potential readers.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:27 PM on December 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

That's an interesting question. I guess you want to know if you can sound authentic. There's paradox there, because fiction can only sound authentic, it never is authentic, by definition. You can do it for sure. But the "sound" of authenticity has to be there somewhere, in the voice of the author. It's probably harder to pull it off without living the experience, but it's done all the time, be it with never-visited places or never-experienced events.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 5:35 PM on December 31, 2010

An example that comes to mind is Maryanne Stroud Gabbani's blog which conveys so strongly the sights, sounds, smells, atmosphere and appearance of the suburbs of Cairo/Giza and her life there that I believe one could write a scene or story that seems authentically set there just using her observations. There are other writers online who also do a wonderful job of conveying a sense of other cities, some I know and some I've never seen. Yes, I believe this is possible.
posted by Anitanola at 6:08 PM on December 31, 2010

If you research enough, I agree with others that the only readers you really need to worry about are the ones who know the place well. To avoid that problem, you should just try to set your stories in smaller places, so you'll have fewer readers who really know them. If the story needs to be set in France, but there's no real reason it has to be Paris, pick a smaller town that fewer people will know. (Or invent one!) If your story has to be set in Australia, you're better off choosing e.g. Newcastle than Sydney, for the same reasons. Of course if you didn't invent the town, you might find it a little harder to do the appropriate research on a small town than a big city, but with the way the internet is, as well as the ease of communicating with people on the other side of the world, it's not impossible.
posted by lollusc at 6:33 PM on December 31, 2010

To me it depends on what you mean by "setting" your story in a place. For instance, imagine that your protagonist is an Australian backpacker exploring Cambodia. Your protagonist doesn't know very much about Cambodia, and so unless you're dying to make Angkor Wat a "character" in your story, you could probably get away with doing research in guidebooks and the like.

This would all depend, of course, on the parameters of your story. If you want it to be third person omniscient, yeah, you probably need to know more about Cambodia than your backpacker does. Or if the story is about Cambodian culture, specifically? Yep, you need to know more than your ham-fisted backpacker who's going to get into all sorts of trouble in Phnom Penh. It also depends how ambitious your story is, and what kind of story you're trying to tell. Big Trouble in Little China works, even though I'm sure its portrayal of San Francisco's Chinatown is horribly inaccurate. It's a fairytale. Accuracy isn't the point. But if you're trying to write A Suitable Boy, yeah, you need to have an intimate knowledge of your setting or the whole thing is going to fall flat.

Another example. Dan Brown. Reading The Da Vinci Code, every. single. fact. is wrong. WRONG! SOOOOO WRONG! So fucking wrong I want to stab it in the face and throw acid in the wound! But that's because Brown's storytelling is so inept, and depends so much on set pieces based around these details that he throws around (WHICH ARE WROOONNNNGGGGGGGGGG!!1!11!!!), it forces anyone who so much as took an art appreciation elective in high school to confront the reality that Dan Brown knows FUCK ALL about anything.

Don't be Dan Brown, is the upshot here.
posted by Sara C. at 7:15 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

People write about places they don't know, all the time. Think of writers of historical fiction. If you're writing a novel, most of the action occurs between characters. It's only necessary to sketch out the details of place. The reader will fill in the blanks.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 PM on December 31, 2010

Make sure you've got the fundamentals like physical layout down. Other than that, read widely and become a collector of quirky specifics -- if anything resonates with you, think about working it meaningfully into the story. Don't just stick to novels and nonfict, but flip through some ethnographies, poetry, critical essays, etc.

In creating and communicating a sense of place, your obligation is to the truth and context of the story/characters you're creating, not an abstract commitment to Objectivity. Compare the Paris of Boullier's The Mystery Guest to Baldwin's in Giovanni's Room, for example. What can cramped apartments and late-night taxi routes help you say about your characters? Set out some questions for yourself, and dive into (all sections of) the library for answers.
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:10 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Historians do this all the time with cities of the past. So, yes, I'd think you could do this with one from the present.

You will run up against the limit that stoneweaver notes, which is being unable to say anything genuinely new or strange or different about a place. But you can fake that unique personal perspective pretty well using a synthesis of information from multiple sources such as interviews with former residents, oral histories, blogs from current residents, google maps/streetview/earth images, flickr images, gallery and museum collections, youtube videos, news articles, travel guides and narratives, pictorial and social histories, etc, etc.

Your imagination should then be capable of filling the blanks, at least for cities that have a lot published about them. If you're good, in the few instances where your imagination fails, your readers' imaginations will do the filling in.

Which sort of gives rise to a secondary point. The popularity of a lot of fiction (and even much travel narrative) set in foreign places is not a product of the author presenting an entirely new and different perspective. Rather, it arises from their presenting readers with a reworking of what the readers think they already know, but weaving a slightly different narrative through those familiar landscapes.

The Paris of many reader's minds is not Paris, it's a product of what they've previously read, watched, and researched about Paris. So your baseline is matching your own research to that of your intended audience, and then just going a little further. Doing so is not going to produce a world shaking text, but it's likely to allow you to write something that leaves everyone feeling content.

To overstate this just a little, people who want entirely foreign, different, strange and new locations aren't reading fiction set in Paris. They're reading science fiction and fantasy set on strange worlds or in alternate universes.
posted by Ahab at 3:50 AM on January 1, 2011

Just another couple of ideas for sources. Real estate agent's websites (and aggregate listing sites) will often give you detailed exterior and interior photos of flats, apartments and businesses. And websites for long established or famous businesses often have similarly detailed photos (as well as menus, maps, contact details etc).
posted by Ahab at 4:33 AM on January 1, 2011

I'd make contact with some bloggers in those places, and read their posts, and see if you can get them to perhaps answer some questions or maybe do a little research for you. I think it's possible, but you do run the risk of relying on other people's perceptions.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:32 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid, one of my favourite books was an anatomy text that had systems of the human body printed on clear acetate pages that overlaid each other. You could look at one page to see the skeleton, then add the circulatory system over top, and the digestive organs and selected muscles. When they were all in place, the image was rich with depth and colour and fascinating, informative, glorious guts.

I think of every person in a city as contributing and combining different experiences and understandings of their culture, none complete in themselves, like a stack of a million acetate images. You couldn't even see through them all at once, even if you narrow your focus to a specific subculture. No one writer can capture that, and no reader can complain if you don't.

Your experience of Paris (defined as Paris-As-Place-You've-Experienced-Only-At-A-Remove) is just as valid as anyone else's. You can write about it.
posted by Sallyfur at 1:16 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to read the true story of how a bestselling author tried this. Specifically, Jim Butcher writing about Chicago when he'd never been there.

"The books are set in Chicago because Butcher's writing teacher at the University of Oklahoma made him. He originally wanted to place the story in KC, but his teacher nixed that and gave him a globe showing four American cities. The choices were Los Angeles — no interest. Washington — too much politics. New York — the Fantastic Four had that wrapped up. That left Chicago. One problem: Butcher had never been to Chicago and didn't make his first visit till after he'd written book #8.
Factual boo-boos diminish in the later books thanks to Butcher's cadre of Chicago-based beta readers and modern technology. In particular, he says, "Google Earth rocks."

posted by jenfullmoon at 10:56 PM on January 1, 2011

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