Being There

One of the small perks from writing a lot of sf/fantasy is… well, the scene is imaginary. Yes, there are exceptions, near future, Alt history. Yes, you need some level of plausibility – my worst was a fantasy society of pacifist female knights, living amicably in castles on an island with no visible form of agriculture or industrial base (being attacked by bad men, of course) which stretched my mundane, rational mind so much it could not suspend disbelief. However, there is a far higher level of flexibility there than for say crime or historical novels set in a real place.

This is a great relief to me as I live in what most people would consider an unreal place. I mean, please, an island off the coast of Tasmania, with a rural population of around 0.2 per square km?  I accept it is not particularly easy to relate to, for the average urban reader. The advice ‘write what you know’ is pretty limiting for the likes of me, otherwise – especially if you assume I am writing for an audience that identifies with it. Fortunately, it seems neither of these assumptions have to be true, at least for sf/fantasy.

I’m in the UK at the moment, visiting my son and his wife, in Cambridge. I’m fitting some book research into it because even if some of my scenes are imaginary, I do a fair amount of historical/alt history/fantasy – which this serves as a timely reminder of just how small places where that people fought vast wars over are, and how ridiculously close together (by Australian rural standards) and how crowded together the people are… and what a surprising amount of open space there is between them – houses a foot from the road-edge, attached to their neighbors and yet with a long narrow garden at the back – I suppose a product of a small island, large population, and land being valuable and probably being under produce – but why the road-frontage has to be so close? 

I forget the sheer density of people in places I don’t live, and it is good to be reminded of this.

Anyway – I have always tried to visit places I have written about – or places similar. I’ve taken a lot of photographs which I hope will help to fill in the details – and some to inspire new stories – see the picture from Wales – Huntsman’s leap, it is called. The geography makes part of the story. But what do you do when you can’t?

31 comments

  1. And needless to say (but I will anyhoo) a writer should always keep track of their expenses as when you incorporate your research into your writing those expenses become a deductible item at tax time. Assuming of course that your efforts turn a profit.

  2. A story based upon “write what you know“ and “audience identifies with” would be titled “Bored in School”.

    There’s a bestselling idea, gratis. (/sarc)

    As to your question, the answer is “tone it down”. Something cool enough to really draw my attention is also likely to be unbelievable enough to require evidence. (Example: The Strid in northern England) I could put a lesser version of it in a story, but the thing itself would bust the willing suspension of disbelief.
    I have a Geology background with a bit of a geography obsession, and I’m fairly well traveled, so throwing in something cool is no big deal. But It has to fit. No sandstone (or welded ash tuff) caves scoured by the wind bracketed by guardian hoodoos without being in a desert area with blowing sand.

    1. “If Shakespeare had taken the advice to write what he knew, his first play would have been about being a playwright from a small market town. His second play would have been about being a playwright from a small market town who wrote a play about being a playwright from a small market town…”

  3. Also I realize that I haven’t been to Cambridge in far far too long. Um at least 3 years ago, probably 4 or 5. I’m kind of jealous.

    In the putting things in perspective column, recall that Cambridge to London was a 2 or more day trip for most of history for most people and several hours even for riders who could change horses every 20 miles. As opposed to a couple of hours these days

  4. It helps to have a lot of real world familiarity just to get a feel for how things fit together

  5. What do I do when I cannot visit a place? A *lot* of research. In a book I recently finished one of the plates showed a US air raid on Hong Kong in January 1945. Forget Google Earth in this case. Much of the harbor area has been filled in and built upon. Fortunately I was able to lay hands on harbor maps from the 1930s (Jane’s All the World’s Warships is a good source).

    But what did it *look* like? I did a web search for postcards of Hong Kong in the 1930s, late 1940s, and early 1950s. Color postcards. There were lots of them and I pieced together the appearance of the harbor area that way. I did web searches for the shipyards in Hong Kong, and discovered plans and a model of one of them. (Turned out it was a point of pride, and the model was in some 1910 exposition Hong Kong display. I also gathered profiles and photos of the cargo ships in the harbor.

    The result is now the cover of the soon to be released book.

    Similarly, in another book one of the plates showed the 1922 shelling of Fort Copacabana by the Brazilian battleship Sao Paulo in 1922. This is in Rio de Janeiro. What the hell did it look like then? Another websearch yielded Movietone shorts on Rio in the early 1930s. They were tourist films promoting Rio to viewers in US movie theaters. One even showed a Minas Gereas class battleship steaming past the peninsula the fort was on.

    So, today, you can do a lot of your travel virtually – and even have the equivalent of a time machine.

    1. I did the same for Singapore in the 1930s and Brisbane during WWII – having never been to either of those places. There were pictures upon pictures in various archives and websites, links to newspaper morgues, and one lucky find for Singapore was a late 1930s map of the place intended for taxi drivers. Another was of the streetcar lines in Brisbane, and a writer friend who grew up there in the 1950s and provided lots of local color, all gratefully incorporated into the finished novel. The internet is an awesome tool – otherwise it would have taken months longer, and I would practically have had to live in the local library branch.

    2. Find maps on-line and read everything I can find, in any language I can function in. That’s where I start for things I can’t see for myself. Then tie it into what I do know and have seen, and start playing.

  6. The people who fret online about global overpopulation live in bedsits above Asian food restaurants places like in Cambridge where people are packed cheek-to-jowl. Nobody in rural Wyoming Dakota frets about it (population density less than 3 per square kilometer). They know it’s a full day’s walk to the nearest sizeable town and not a living soul in sight. That’s what “intimate knowledge of geography” means = sore feet.

    1. Worse, they tend to be in the where-people-are areas of those cities.

      I, um, get lost a lot– my judgement for what the talking map means by “two thousand feet” is a bit off, and I’m very safety-minded, so when I screw up I don’t take the big van back out into traffic unexpectedly, and drive through a lot of places that are a block or three before the gas station/fast food we stopped to visit.

      There are a lot of empty houses, in every city I’ve done this, and that literally criss-crosses the entire country.

      The calculations of empty housing in a city depends on ones that are legally inhabitable, and there’s not a lot of profit in taking the four houses out of 12 on a slowly rotting street and making them habitable!

      Here in Iowa, Des Moines actually just announced they’re starting a first-in-the-nation program to actually do that! After three years of massive numbers of people moving here! (One of the suburbs has been in the high end of the top ten fastest growing cities in the US for the whole time.)

    2. One of the (to me) trippy thing’s about Europe is realizing that every single tree stand I’ve seen is on a grid pattern.

      As near as I can tell, Europe has been 100% cultivated. There are no “natural” tree stands or forests there. There are areas that are more or less populated, but no truly wild areas.

      In the US, if you’re driving for 30 minutes you can easily be in a fully wild tree growth. Very different.

      1. Parts of the Odenwald in Germany, and parts of the Carpathians are so remote (even now) that forestry has been very limited, ditto farming, especially since the 1300s. So there’s probably no “pristine” wilderness like people think North America has [little do they know . . .], but there ARE areas that are “wild” in the sense Americans and Canadians think of.

          1. The Odenwald escaped being turned into a pine and softwood plantation back in the 1700s-1800s, because it is so remote. Other areas . . . harder to say. I’ve not been into the forested parts of Germany since 2018, and I wasn’t really looking at the trees then. Rivers and drainages are more my thing, and “was there once a fortification here at some point?”

            1. Yup, and finding out what “pollard” and such looks like. So now, I understand why European “wild woods” don’t actually look all that wild. Because they’re not.

              Whereas, if you walk into a woods in an American suburb, you might find evidence of past farming or houses, but the trees are just growing everywhere, uninterfered with, in a pattern dictated by natural succession of meadow into woodlands. And if you go into a really ancient forest (that wasn’t fiddled with by the Indians), it looks really really different from European woods.

    3. Recently read a book where the character is a country hick for living two hour’s travel by bus outside the city. Which was accurate. But not ideal for envisioning large countries.

  7. But what do you do when you can’t?

    Find something as close as I can– in real life if possible, in fiction if not.
    And then try to break it, figure out when it stops feeling real.

  8. “The geography makes part of the story. But what do you do when you can’t?”

    Google Maps and Streetview. I’ve been to the Arizona desert and the Superstition Mountains, so putting them in a story was easy. I’ve never been to Europe, therefore I spent a lot of time on Streetview going up and down the canals, looking at stuff I could talk about. Like the pavements, the little gated car parks, the cafe tables etc. It’s the little things which give the “You Are There” feel. Or so I suppose, anyway.

    Example from Dave’s picture, I’d be interested to know if there’s grass on that rock between the two cliffs waaaaay down at the end, or if it is scuffed dirt from kids climbing down to it and taking selfies. Are the stones polished from hands on the easy route down?

  9. Taking Phantom’s point one step farther – distance geographically causes problems, distance by time is similar. The Google Earth view of Southeastern Minnesota today shows miles and miles of farm fields dotted with groves of trees around homesteads. The view in 1840 would have shown miles and miles of woods dotted with clearings around homesteads.

    I recall a story in a book about pioneers, can’t quote exactly but it was something like: “I was eight years old the summer we walked from Galena, Illinois, where the railroad ended, to Mankato, Minnesota where Daddy had bought 40 acres from the government. We stayed the first winter in the Johnson’s barn and moved to our own barn for the next three winters until Daddy had cleared enough land to build a house. It was years later that Momma was ever so glad when Daddy put in wooden floors instead of dirt.”

    How many trees did Daddy cut down with an axe, drag by oxen, notch and lift into place to form walls, chink the gaps with mud, and cut for firewood for the winter, while also plowing around the stumps for crops and keeping a watchful eye for wild animals including the two-legged variety?

    How bad were things in Chicago that this life in Minnesota was BETTER?

    1. I don’t know about the people you reference – but many people pioneered not because life would be better – but because it could be better, and that was not a good bet if they stayed where they were. I know that this was the motivation for many of my ancestors. I suppose even for myself, although I moved barely 100 miles. Come to think of, my son just moved another ~100 miles for opportunity.

    2. Depending on the family, Chicago might not have had enough opportunities for getting ahead. Also depends on when it was. If it was the early 1870s, then Chicago was not great – the Panic of 1873, the Fire, other things were causing a lag in development. Mankato was good land, not too many rocks, good neighbors, with decent transportation access by water and rail. It was also boggy, but that’s true of that entire area. (FWIW I used to work up in that area, on the southern side of the Lutefisk Line.)

  10. Like many who have already replied here, I depend heavily on the internet for research into various places and times. Living in central Texas makes it somewhat difficult to go look at the various battle sites of WW2. (Although I do live reasonably close to the National Museum of the Pacific War, which will be very handy for book 4.)

    Completely off topic, how do I go about sending gift copies of my books to someone from Amazon? I recall seeing that option mentioned somewhere but nothing about how to do it.

    1. Using Amazon:

      For a paper book you have to set up addtional names and addresses anc

    2. For Kindle, use the “Buy for others
      Give as a gift or purchase for a group.
      Learn more” path an email link will be sent

  11. > but why the road-frontage has to be so close?

    I came across something about that just a few weeks ago. I think it was in one of James Burke’s books.

    Primarily, it was a sign of status to be able to step off the street into your residence; that’s why 10 Downing Street was built that way.

    Secondarily but related, depending on orientation to the sun, poor people had their houses set back from the street to make room for gardens, which were used to grow food to eat, a visible symbol of poverty, which made setback a negative sign.

    1. Because mud, and horsedung.

      You have a nice house, and you want to step onto your front step or front stairs, not onto the street. Because if you step onto the street, you will have dirty shoes in the house.

      This is also why scrubbing your front step was a sign that you cared about cleanliness and were not lazy.

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