When you start getting interested enough in writing to look up advice on how to approach doing it ‘properly’, the first thing you’ll hear is that you should ‘write what you know’. This is partially useful advice only, to be handled with care. For a start, too many people construe it as permission to write only from their own experience. There are lots of reasons this is problematic for the fiction writer, many to do with how much it restricts you, and the rest to do with how libelous other people who experienced the same thing at the same time are going to find it. In this context, a quick look around your local bookshop (if you’re lucky enough to still have one) should indicate that the advice cannot credibly be taken so literally, unless you’re also prepared to accept that Tolkien went on holiday to some very strange places, or that Christie could barely get a sentence written before somebody else was decorously murdered in her immediate vicinity.
The only useful way to handle the advice is when you look past the surface gloss of a story, to the themes and interests behind it. While Tolkien probably never shared a pipe with anybody the size and disposition of a small child (we should hope), he did fight in one of the most terrible wars this planet has ever seen, and lived to see the horrific scale of death and despair of the other one. He also had an intense loathing of the industrialisation of the English countryside. The Lord of the Rings is massive, and blends many more of his interests and experiences together, so these are just two examples. With regards the industrialisation of the countryside, it’s reasonable to say that he was consciously including this as a dramatic theme in his books, particularly The Two Towers. While I’m not as confident saying so, as he always maintained that the armies of evil in the trilogy are not a direct allegory of the troops sent forth by the Kaiser or Hitler, I would say that the war that forms the backdrop of Frodo’s quest is not a theme that he is consciously drawing attention to, but one that remains detailed by his experience of the world around him.
Tolkien used what he knew to create something nobody had ever seen before, which is sort of the point I’m making. Most of the surface details can be filled in through a careful blend of coffee and research. I say most, because there’s one that you have to be particularly careful about. Any guesses?
Location, location, location.
It’s the location, stupid.
If a real location features in more than a passing way in your tale, you need to do some serious groundwork. People are going to read this story, or so you hope. Some of them might have visited the same place. Some might actually live there. If the location your character is wandering through differs radically from the real place, then you might as well tattoo ‘fraud’ to your forehead and have done. It’s possible to convey a reasonable sense of place through research, but you need to do a lot, using a lot of different source material so that you can be sure you’re not reflecting one source’s skewed and inaccurate opinion. The best alternative to all that research, of course, is to either use a fictional location, or one you’ve been to.
As I’ve recently discovered though, locations you’ve been to can give a false sense of security. My most recent published story, ‘The Story Eater’ in the Iris: Abroad anthology, is also the first that I’ve set in India. When I wrote it last year, I hadn’t been living here for very long, and so I was careful to use locations that I could speak of from first hand knowledge, because the tale itself is all about New Delhi, and I didn’t want to get it wrong.
That didn’t stop me from getting it wrong. The error is small, but immediately noticeable if you’ve ever visited New Delhi Railway Station. Towards the end of the tale, Iris, Panda, and Vikram head there in order to confront the villain of the piece. They climb out of their auto-rickshaw, to be confronted with the steps up to the station, which are crowded with people sitting, waiting, wrapped in blankets. It’s exactly what I remembered from my one visit to the place, in the dark hours of a March morning, catching a train to Jaipur.
A couple of weeks ago I went through the same station, to catch a train north to the city of Ludhiana. There are no steps into the station. None whatsoever. The entrance to the station is level with the street.
I was a bit bewildered, to be honest. Having not only been in person before, but also having spent quality time there with Iris and Panda in my story, I couldn’t place where I was, and almost convinced myself I was at the wrong station. It underlined for me that memory is unreliable. During that previous visit it was dark. We were running late and didn’t know where we were going. The whole thing was stressful, confusing, and rushed. No wonder I misremembered the detail some months later.
It’s a lesson I have already learned, which makes that small slip all the more frustrating. When I set parts of The Flesh Remembers on the banks of the Tyne, I was aware that the area had been massively redeveloped since I was familiar with it in my late teens, and so took the time to go back and get my bearings again. When I set Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow on the same Polish streets I’d taken my now wife to for her birthday, I referred extensively to our many photographs (there are huge additional benefits in marrying a keen amateur photographer), even scouring the Internet for different angles on the same locations to make sure I was getting it right. For some reason, possibly because the memory felt fresh, I felt confident enough not to do so when it came to ‘The Story Eater’.
Ergo, it’s wrong.
Probably the only person who is ever going to mind when they read that section is me. It’s a handy reminder though. I strongly believe that when you use real locations in fiction, you’re using a powerful tool that can heighten the reality of the story, adding authenticity to something that never happened.
Except when you get it wrong.