Writing about places you’ve been is a lot easier than writing about places you have to imagine. Yes, if your imagination is vivid, you can probably create a landscape in your head that is gorgeous and fantastic, but there is something about describing a place that you have actually visited that makes your words seem more visceral.
If I tell you that the streets of San Francisco are curvy, filled with hills and neat row houses stacked side by side, you can assume that I have been there. But if I tell you that the streets of Washington D.C. are straight and crowded with people of every ethnicity, with row houses covered in rotted sideboards, pockmarked with dingy windows, you might have a better idea that I’d visited there rather than having just heard about it or Googled it.
I just finished writing a scene set in Indianapolis. Some of it, I admittedly had to Google because my sense of direction is horrible. And I didn’t go stand outside any skyscrapers. But I was in Indianapolis. I drove under the Indianapolis Artsgarden. I ate lunch at the Rathskellar. I experienced the big hometown feel of the city itself, marveling at how it can be so much like Wichita (the largest city close to me) but so much bigger.
Once you have visited a place, you can describe it so much better in writing.
I am currently working my fingers to the bone on a book about Guatemala. I’m super excited about this book. I’ve been told it’s one of the best I’ve written, especially in the detailed aspects of setting. And I can be detailed in the setting because I’ve been there.
I can tell you that Guatemalan humidity makes you feel like you’re wearing a shirt made of saran wrap in the dead of summer. I can tell you that the parrots and the birds make so much racket when you wake up in the morning that you don’t need an alarm clock. I can tell you what it’s like to stand in a muddy dirt street in a village full of ex-guerillas living in wooden shacks with tin roofs. I can tell you what the wind smells like standing on top of Temple IV at the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
I’ve been there.
I can tell you how difficult it is for a woman who works in an air-conditioned office to hike three miles through jungle and cornfields with the sun beating down from above and the earth radiating heat from turned up dirt and rocks below. And I can tell you what it’s like to try to ride in a hollowed-out canoe across the Passion River. And I can tell you about walking into a Q’eqchi village that has never seen a white person before.
If I hadn’t experienced all of that (and more), I could pretend. That’s the beautiful thing about imagination. We can dream up all sorts of beautiful landscapes. And with the introduction of Google to our resources, we can pay limited visits to any country around the world. Maybe someday Google will take us to Mars too. But even if you see it through Google’s eyes, it’s not the same as actually being there.
I love writing science fiction and fantasy because it gives me the chance to write amazing stories about amazing things that happen. But as I’ve started working on this standalone novel outside the scifi/fantasy genre, I’ve developed a love for mainstream fiction too. What interests me is the story. If the story is good and challenging and life changing, then I am engaged.
The book is called The Mountain Requires Blood and it’s basically the story of a Guatemalan orphan, Jamie Logan, who returns to his home country in search of his birth mother. But he’s only there because his adopted father, who he loved more than life, made him promise to go with his last breath. To find his birth mother, Jamie has to ask the help of a missionary family living in the area, and Jamie finds more than he bargained for.
While on one hand, it is a story of identity, it’s also a story about what missionaries actually do. I’m trying to get this book done by June to use as my example at the Glen Eyrie Writing Workshop, but I’d also like to get it done by then so my friends in Guatemala can review it. I want their opinion, since this crazy book represents the culture they live in.
In any case, it all comes back to knowing what you’re writing. If you can’t visit the place you’re writing about, research it with everything that you have. But if you can go visit, do it. Don’t miss the opportunity. Or even better, write a novel about where you are right now.
I’m also working on a series that is set in Kansas. It’s a science fiction / fantasy adventure series set in rural south-central Kansas. Not joking. Because as awesome as Smallville is, there wasn’t enough Kansas in it. So far the only science fiction show I’ve seen that actually did Kansas right was Stargate: SG-1, one of the later seasons. One of the main characters, Cameron Mitchell, was from a small town in Kansas, and they got his character right, they got the look of his town right, they got the look of his family farm right, and they got the personality of his parents and the people around them right. Hollywood often gets it wrong.
Why? Because they’ve never been here.
Made me love Stargate even more. And I was already a freak about it.
Just know the place you’re writing about. Whether you get to go or not, know it.
But if you end up writing a book about Guatemala and if you get to go visit, you have to order a papaya liquado from Las Puertas on Florés Island in Petén. ¿Comprende? Trust me. You won’t regret it.