Monday, April 17, 2006

You Just Had to Be There

The story idea I'm currently working on and that I've committed to finish by end-of-summer is set on Cape Cod. The town in which it takes place is fictional, but I've set it down in a real place, a place where people who live there or who have visited there will very easily be able to claim foul if I muck it all up.

I've been to Cape Cod. When I was nine. So it's been...oh, a few years ago. I've been doing some major research on the area via books, the internet, and Google Earth (coolest program ever!) to get a general feel for the area, history and the like.

But it's not even close to the same as visiting.

So yesterday I came up with the brilliant idea of taking a trip to Cape Cod. To check it out, take some photos, drive up and down highway 6 and get a sense of the place, the way it smells and sounds, how it looks during different times of the day. I honestly think this is critical if I want my story to ring true.

Problem is, I can't make such a trip until August at the earliest, more likely not even until October. Which leaves me in kind of a pickle. Do I plod onward with the book, ignoring or faking setting until I have a chance to take my trip, after which I can come back and rewrite accordingly? Or do I refocus my energies on a different story, putting my current WIP on the backburner until I have more of this fundamental research completed?

I've been focusing on how important setting authenticity is for me in a story. If I'm not familiar with a location - city, country, environment - I'm really forgiving if the writer gets it all wrong. After all, I certainly don't know any better.

But when a writer places a story in a town I am familiar with, I either smile and nod happily when I recognize things, or I shake my head in disappointment when she (or he) gets it all wrong. Via Sara Donati's Storytelling I found Beth's rant about the pseudo-familiarity of Chicago implied in The Time Traveler's Wife to reflect my own general opinions. The writer seems very familiar with the city, but a consistent mis-use of Chicagoan terms jars those of us in the real know enough to distract from the story. I haven't read TTTW to be able to agree or disagree with Beth on this specific example, but I do agree with her assessment about the way it *should* be for it to ring true to a person actually from Chicago.

It's not just physical descriptions of locations or putting landmarks in their correct geographical place or even getting the local vernacular accurate that poses a challenge for writers. There's something about capturing a place's soul, it's overall feeling that makes such a difference. In a bizarre way, there's almost a responsibility for a writer to "get it right" if only because those not familiar with an area might form expectations based on what they've read. True, those who base their thoughts about a place based on what they've read in fiction rather than checking out non-fiction sources don't deserve much credit on the intelligence scale, yet it happens all the same.

I've said before that although I absolutely loved Lynn Viehl's If Angels Burn and Private Demon books, the one issue I've had with both was her portrayal of Chicago as some kind of menacing place where people live behind closed and locked doors and windows for fear of going out. Certainly there are parts of Chicago where one doesn't wander on purpose, but for the most part, the city is a warm, welcoming place, full of happy, smiling people who are glad to see you. The Chicago Viehl describes is simply not the one I know, and whenever I come across a phrase or descriptive where I feel she's gotten it all wrong, I feel both disappointed and a tad bit angry that others who don't know my city might actually be getting the wrong idea about it based on these books.

Back to my Cape Cod situation. I have in my mind what I imagine Cape Cod - and living there - is like. However, what my imagination invents versus what is real could be completely different. If I were to write an entire story based on my assumptions, I could be looking at a lot of egg on my face. Or, what if I wrote an entire novel only to find out that the setting I've chosen is entirely wrong for the mood I wanted to create? What if I set my couple on a beach that I think is romantic and peaceful - say, Honolulu's Waikiki Beach - only to find out it is actually ridden with crowds of tourists, lined with towering hotels that block out scenic beauty, and has so many strolling vendors hocking cheap souvenirs as to make you want to run screaming? Not that I'm saing Waikiki Beach is like this, but I really have no idea. So setting my couple there might not be so wise.

Anyway, all of this to say I think if a writer wants to write about a place with which she is not familiar, it might behoove her to become familiar. Granted, I don't see it within my power financially or time-wise to take any long trips across the English and Scottish countrysides in order to help me with some historicals I have in the queue. Sometimes research has to be good enough if there is nothing for it.

But for my own situation, I think a trip to New England is doable.

And, dang, what a hardship. Nice, long romantic weekend away with the hubby all in the name of research? Wonder if I can write it off as a work expense, or do I have to sell first?


Megan Frampton said...

I think you're right about the setting, about needing to get it right, although I think you can get the flavor without actually being there...For Cape Cod, for example (my dad lives there), there is a schism between the year-rounders, who work a lot of the jobs, and the wealthy folks who come in for the summer. And the overall age is getting older and older as more and more wealthy people are retiring out there. I'd suggest searching out the local papers (The Cape Codder, I think), as well as, perhaps, a blog by a Cape Cod native.

I can't ever visit Regency England, so I'm totally winging it.

Lynn M said...

Oh, Megan, thanks for that little tidbit!! Actually, what you've offered fits in very nicely with the overall conflict in my story - that of "townies" versus the rich folks. I know it's ten types of stereotyping, probably from watching too many movies, but I always imagined there would be that schism existing in New England resort-ish communities, like Martha's Vinyard, Nantucket, etc. One of the reasons I chose Cape Cod for my setting, actually.

As for Regency England, you could get yourself involved in one of those re-enactment groups, start making elaborate costumes and all that LOL. Don't imagine that would work quite as well as being there. Someone needs to invent a time machine for all of us historical fiction writers. :)

Mary in Wellfleet said...

I live Wellfleet, a small town 12 miles from the tip of the cape. Meghan describes the social issues perfectly of the smaller towns, people who live here struggling to survive as the millionaires come and buy what little property is left, build a trophy home and then put up a sign saying that we may no longer walk on the path we have walked on all our lives. The larger towns (Hyannis, Falmouth) are beginning to suffer the same plagues that come with increased development..poverty and crime (mostly among teens who have very little to do and even less money to do it with because the parents live and work in the community)

However, the Cape is not all negative, we have the most beautiful beaches and the most interesting locals...If you visit I hope you see this aspect of the cape too!