Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, Location

I’ve recently been reading Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas which, for those who haven’t come across it, is a book about writing fiction and how stories work and it’s basically brilliant. I really enjoyed it and I think I learned a lot. (Now to buy my own copy and highlight it and scribble all over it and stick post-it notes in it…)

One of the things she gets a reader to do is to fill in a matrix which includes things like “Problems You Have Faced” and “Places You Know Well” and “Special Skills/ Knowledge You Have” with the intention of putting them together to come up with novel ideas. And it’s great, up to a point. I mean, if you fill it in honestly (one column is Things You Worry About), it might be something you keep very private. I know mine is.

But when it came to places I know well, I was stuck.

For this particular column we were given four boxes to fill in. Immediately I started thinking, “Places I know well? What does that mean? Places I could write about? And is this, like, towns, or is it particular locations like a school or a dance studio?”

From looking at the examples provided by Scarlett Thomas, I assumed we were talking towns. Okay. So we’re looking at towns or villages or cities that I know well enough to write about. And that’s where I ran into problems.

I’ve always lived in the same place. Well, we moved here a couple of weeks before my first birthday, so I guess I have lived in two places, but I don’t remember the other one at all. Therefore, I’ve spent just over sixteen years of my life living in the same suburb of London, in the same house, taking the same buses and walking the same routes. I know the area around where I live, too. I know where we used to go to the library and I know the main shopping centre nearby because the big library is there and because my orchestra used to be down the road; I know the highstreet on the other side of my school because I used to take the bus through it to get to my violin lesson a little way away…

But I basically only know one town or area of towns well enough to write about them.

So, I had one box filled in. Where else did I know? Well, there was Barcombe, where my grandparents lived. I went on enough walks that I could describe the countryside nearby fairly accurately, and it’s not a big place so there’s not much of it I haven’t seen. But I don’t live there. I don’t know how it works on a day to day basis; I don’t know what the people are like or what their opinions are on social issues or what it would actually be like to grow up there.

Nevertheless, I could describe it, and make it sound like I knew what I was talking about, so I put that in the second box.

Two boxes to go. And I was stumped. See, I’ve been to Central London plenty of times, but am I any different from a ‘regular’ tourist? (If there’s any such thing.) The routes I take are usually fairly direct from the train station to the theatre, or to Foyles, or to Central School of Ballet, or to Camden Market, or to the English Folk Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House (all of these are examples of places I’ve been more than once, some more than others).

I wouldn’t say I know London well. I don’t know what it’s like to live or work there. I live right on the edge of SE London, you know. It’s practically Kent.

London was out. Where else did I know well? I wouldn’t say Oxford. I’ve been there a couple of times because my uncle lives there, but not enough to be able to navigate it even a little bit. And I went to Durham three times. I don’t think that counts. I got pretty good at getting around Edinburgh when I was there for the festival, but I still needed a map, and it doesn’t look anything like that during the rest of the year, I imagine.

I mean, there isn’t anywhere else I know well enough to make it sound like I know what I’m doing without extensive research.

And I think I’m at a disadvantage. Yes, I can write books set places I’ve never been. I can write them set in other worlds, for a start! I wrote a book set at Aberdeen University for the most part, and ended up asking them questions on Twitter and reading their entire prospectus and watching their virtual tour, and then using my knowledge of students elsewhere to cobble together a vaguely convincing picture–and even then I knew it was probably inaccurate. (But I’m going to Aberdeen this Easter, so I’ll be taking plenty of video to use as reference.) That isn’t the same as living there.

My stay-in-one-place nature is a massive contrast to other young writers who have maybe lived a more exciting life and seen more places. Charley, for a start, has lived all over the world.

I think I’m going to have to leave those boxes in the matrix blank. But the next time I go somewhere for any length of time, I will examine it. I will take photos. I will take notes. I will observe people and how they behave. I will film routes that characters would maybe need to take, so that I know how to describe them. I will do my best to learn how to ‘know a place well’ in a day or a week rather than in years.

Because that’s what writers need to do, really, isn’t it? Anyone can look, but what we need to do is see.

18 thoughts on “Location, Location, Location

  1. Having lived in two different countries and a several different houses I suppose I am not particularly disadvantaged in this area, but this is the big area where young writers are disadvantaged compared with adult writers — we don’t have nearly as much experience. I read a quote once: “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” Young writers need the imagination so much more!

      1. Actually I suppose that is true. The big advantage we have is that we know exactly what it’s like to be a young person in today’s society. There we can write from experience and while adults require more imagination.

        1. Yes! I also believe that hormones heighten experiences we have, so we might never have had a divorce but we’ve felt the emotions through break-ups…etc. We can take small things and then our hormones make the emotions bigger.
          But there are some aspects of life we just don’t know enough about yet. I don’t know what it’s like to work in an office of go supermarket shopping for a family or to have to pay the bills. In a few years, I might, and then I can write it. At present, however, I’ll stick to characters my own age and/or alien.

  2. This was very interesting to read because I’m in a similar situation. I’ve moved once, but I was too young to remember it. I don’t really know the nearby towns too well since I live in between two instead of in one of them. I mean, I can sort of find my way around and know where my friends live, but sometimes I still get confused about where we are there.

    And then for cities, I’ve been to Chicago loads of times but pretty much just to museums – I couldn’t really write about someone who lived there unless they lived in the Art Institute!

        1. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE YOU HAVEN’T READ IT?! It’s about a girl and her brother who live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It’s amazing. It made me want to run away and go live in an exhibit.

  3. I’m terrible at being a regular commenter.
    Anyway, I also have this problem, which probably explains why so many of my stories take place in fictional areas. I have it especially badly, though, since I zone out whenever I’m in the car and/or bus, and so could be totally lost in the town I’ve lived in all my life.

  4. Ah, but what they don’t tell you is that well-travelled people like me can’t remember half the places they’ve lived in! I only hazily remember Canada and most parts of Germany – and you’d laugh at my lack of knowledge of British geography.

    I may be able to recall running away from crocodiles down the beach, but I can’t tell you a thing about bus routes anywhere. It all balances out, trust me ;)

    1. Bus routes are a little bit specific, I suppose. What particularly interests me is understanding what it’s like to live among people of a certain area, and what their attitudes are. Which one wouldn’t think varied a lot, but you only have to look at voting to know the sort of perspectives the majority have in each area. I guess that’s a good place to start with understanding viewpoint!

  5. I don’t usually care whether I know the place or not– I use a map program to keep my characters from turning left out of a dead-end street, and that’s about it. And hey, can’t you fill the other two boxes with fictional places? Memory is like imagination, only slightly less vivid.

    1. I think that wasn’t quite the idea of the exercise (though I know the layout of my character Jennie’s house VERY well by now) — it’s designed to inspire new novels, not develop existing ones. But it could be an interesting exercise to work on something within a world one has already created.

      1. Well… I suppose you’re right. Could you just make up a world on the spur of the moment? Places I know well: City of the Aqrwytzi, on the planet Ydrragrsidbr! Don’t ask me to spell it again.

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