Imaginary Places Vs. Real Places You’ve Never Visited

This weeks writing workshop focuses on one question: How do you prepare to write about a real place that you have never visited?

I feel like there’s a difference when your setting is imaginary versus a real place you have never visited. In an imaginary world, your knowledge rules. You can make anything you want and the readers get to experience it. Not saying it’s easier to write imaginary settings, there’s a lot of foundation that needs to be set and a lot of remembering what it is what. However, when your world is a real city that you’ve never set foot in your knowledge bows to greater knowledge. Your goal is to sound like an expert in whatever city your characters are set, so that if a person from that city chooses to read your book they are convinced by your words and better enjoy the story. For me, that’s one of the major keys of becoming a great writer – being able to convince a reader, a smart reader who knows more about your setting or your subject, that you know what you’re talking about, and that they are going to gain something from reading your work. To break that connection, that trust between author and reader, by misplacing an adjective, incorrectly describing your setting, means that you loose all trust between author and reader, and now they can not believe your setting, your subject, your character, and your story. It’s a slippery slope that can cost you potential readers and potential sales.

The book I’m writing now is set in Seattle, Washington, tentatively. I’ve researched Seattle online and tried to dig up some depth of local culture or the mood of the city. I’ve spent time watching the weather, movies set in Seattle and tried out some sleepless nights, but since I constantly worry about “author/reader trust,” I fear that the only way to really convince my reader the characters are in Seattle is more research, possibly visiting the city or some other immersion.

So my question for you all is, how do you write about a real place you’ve never traveled to and what methods of research do you use?

Also, I spent a lot of time on google maps, checking out street names, lake names, green areas, places of interest, I think I might print them up and hang them around my working area to help. I may also look up some topography maps to get a more accurate feel of the elevation levels, terrain and land formations. Still, experiencing the city may just be the best way to go, at least for a desert dwelling, Las Vegas native.

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Writing Worlds that Wow

I read this post, How not to write a sequel to a novel with a kick a** setting, and it really got me thinking about how to create great settings, making a captivating world for your characters. I have a multi-step process in which I create settings for my books.

The first decision I try to make is whether the place will be real or imaginary. If it is real, then the next process is researching the places I have in mind. I start checking out cities and researching what they are known for, places of interest and I also spend a lot of time on google maps, just learning street names, any large parks or lakes, and whatever else that seems to stick out. Weather is another major research project, determining the type of weather through the year. I think if you decide to choose a real city, you need to be able to convince your readers you are knowledgable about the city. Your characters would know the city if they lived there and if your descriptions are inaccurate, it strips the believability from the story and your readers trust falters.

When I decide the setting is going to be imaginary, I go through a different process. I begin with mood; the mood of the characters, the mood of the weather, the entire ambiance. After I decide the mood, I move onto visualization. I generally close my eyes and pretend it’s a movie. I move the characters through the setting, rearranging, replacing, building the “set” until I have a solid world. Then I move to searching the Internet again. I search key words that will bring up pictures that might match the foundation I started. Images that inspire me help me make changes or additions to the imaginary setting.

What I thought was interesting about this post from Michelle is it brings up a good discussion about multiple settings. I think that while it’s very beneficial to have the character move around to different settings, it can also confuse the reader. There should be solid reasons for stark contrasts in settings and, as she noted, they all need to be awesome. Every setting needs to draw the reader into the world and make them want to spend the next 300 pages discovering the awesomeness within it.

My Alphaeus novel that I am currently working on has 3 major, completely separate, distinct and very, very different worlds. I hope that the characters are able to move from world to world without confusing the reader. I have tried to make each world it’s own, by creating completely different atmospheres; different weather, moods, architecture, etc. My hope is that I’ve spent enough time making the worlds awesome, that people fall in love with each and even though they love whichever world they are currently in, they also have a desire to see more of the others.

Fellow writers, how do create the worlds for your characters and how do you make multiple settings awesome in their own ways?