Friday, 15 May 2009

Fly me to the Moon

Welcome to my first coffee morning! It’s naturally decaffeinated Fairtrade I’m afraid, as I can’t handle the hard stuff, but I’ve baked some naughty chocolate-chip cookies to make up for it, so do tuck in…

Now, when I started my w-i-p I knew that my character was going to have a swotty younger brother studying physics at Cambridge University. No problemo I thought – despite never having been a) anywhere near a university or b) to Cambridge. That’s what Google was made for.

So far, her interactions with her brother have been at home or on the phone, but in my latest chapter my MC has to pay him a visit at the University, and that’s where I’ve come a cropper. Yes, there’s a wealth of information online about the university (too much probably) but it’s more complicated than I imagined. For a start the place is MASSIVE, with references to Colleges (?) and in relation to studying physics, a department called The Cavendish Lab, but is this bit for graduates only, or undergraduates or…help!

I’ve chickened out for now and had them meet up at a café in town, but as I’ve never been to Cambridge either I’m now wondering, for authenticity’s sake, whether a trip up there would be justified (it’s not like it’s the moon or anything.) And if it is, why on earth didn’t I make my MC’s brother the owner of a luxury spa resort on a remote tropical island reachable only by specially adapted limousine??

Are you able to write confidently about places you’ve never been to, and if so – how?

25 comments:

Cathy said...

I'll join you for a decaff.

Interesting question. I have to be honest and say that I mainly write about locations I know, even if I fictionalise them a little and relocate them. For example the main setting in my novel is a fictional town which is located somewhere in the region of Guildford (which I don't know but have researched a little) but my descriptions are largely based on Exeter, which I do know.

As for Cambridge, from recollections of visiting a friend in a college there many years ago I would say that it is a totally unique experience, so your solution is a very clever one!

Debs said...

Definately a coffee and one of your naughty cookies for me please.

As usual you've written a post that made me laugh, so clever.

Although I gather that it's not necessary to visit a place to write well about it (didn't someone win the Booker, or some other prize by writing a book about a place they hadn't visited?) I think it would probably be helpful to visit Cambridge for your research. Anyway, I've heard it's beautiful, and if it's close why not?

I haven't been brave enough to write about anywhere that I haven't been, although where my characters live are in houses that I've been inspired to write about from photos, or places I've driven past.

JJ Beattie said...

Oooh decaf for me too thanks, and a cyber cookie is great since it's the only kind of sugar I'm meant to have! Lovely to attend your first coffee Karen.

No is my answer. I cannot write confidently about places I don't know. I want to feel it, see it, smell it and so on. So the solution is a generic place in Kent which invented by me. However, I do refer to real place too. My MC has moved back from Bangkok. That does have to be 'described' but that's okay too since I'm living here.

I'd lie awake at night worrying I'd got some small detail wrong. I know I'm anal...

Quite recently I was reading a book in which the writer called a surgeon by the title 'Dr' when surgeons revert to Mr after they specialise. It didn't ruin my reading experience - I still enjoyed the book (although I can't remember what it was) but if I can possibly help it, I want to get it right.

My solution would be to go there and find someone who HAS studied there. (I know someone who might be happy to talk to you. I know his sister very well. Email me if you want to get in touch... and he did science!)

Good luck, whatever you decide.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi Karen, great question.

When I was 18 and trying to write my first Mills and Boon! I set my *novel* in Gibralta. So naive, I sent a letter to the tourist board, saying that I was writing a book based there (ohmigod, I am so embarrassed as I am writing this). Well, I received this pacakge through the post. They sent me oodles of information, maps, stickers, mugs, guide books and I went from there.

Now I actually went nowhere from there as I never wrote that M&B Novel (still remember my MC's names, Coral and Jed, shudder), but it is something that I feel I'd do in the future (not by admitting that I was writing a book, I hasten to add, but getting in touch with the tourist information office for advice).

But way, way back then I couldn't drive and for those of you who remember was on a YTS. Cambridge seems to be such a beatuful place that I'd opt for a visit. There's nothing like using your senses to take away atmosphere when you're actually there.

Not sure if that helps at all really!

Leatherdykeuk said...

I can only write about places I know, and although I've been to Cambridge several times, I don't know it well enough.

I made Laverstone up, but it's based on an amalgamation of many other places. Yesterday I was showing a visitor the market in Chesterfield, and she said 'Where's Harold's shop'? and I had to tell her that although I'd used the market and the shambles in laverstone, his shop was from Redditch. One of the churches is from Alvechurch, another from Tardebigge, the third from St. Ives and so on.

Flowerpot said...

I tend to base my books on places or know or like Cathy, places that I fictionalise. But I'd go to Cambridge - it's supposed to be beautuiful - what better excuse? Work and play at hte same time!

NoviceNovelist said...

Morning - thanks for the lovely coffee! I agree with the comments above - there is nothing like visiting a place to really imbibe the atmosphere - I think this experience would then come through in your writing as you could then give it your unique reaction to the place/setting. Everyone feels differently about a place and that could be a strong aspect of your story. Sounds as though it is time to pack your overnight bag!!!

Caroline said...

Oxford and Cambridge are very different to other UK universities in that they're not one institution. When you apply, you don't apply to 'Cambridge University', you apply to a college (you can pick up to three) - you are then studying at that college, but your degree will be accredited by Cambridge University.

Different colleges specialise in different things, so as a music student I applied to Clare, Selwyn and Kings (and failed to get in!) - you'd need to check which colleges specialise in the character's subject and then pick the one you think he'd be most at home at. Cambridge provides a helpful guide here:

http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/colleges/

Disclaimer: I was applying 15 years ago and it may well have changed a bit!

Helen said...

I've been to Cambridge once and all I remember was the amount of bicycles about the place! I would go, you need to get a feel for the place.

Thanks for the cookie. Need that today!

CC Devine said...

I think that it is possible to write about a place you haven't been to but, as your case shows, it often requires far more research than a simple visit would require.

I tend to write about places that I have visited and agree with JJ that silly errors can distract you from the story so it's best to do your homework as far as possible.

Captain Black said...

What? No proper coffee? I might grind to a halt. Grind, geddit? Never mind, on with the show (he says, avoiding cookies but looking at them out of the corner of his eye)...

Fantastic topic. I've commented on it elsewhere, can't remember where - possibly facebook, but I'm happy to go again.

As Ethan Hunt said in Mission Impossible: relax, it's much worse than you think.

Much of the action in one of my novels is set on the moons of Jupiter. I have no chance of visiting there any time soon, therefore I have to rely on research. The internet and local libraries are good for this.

Another one is based on a fictitious town which is actually a mix of different real places. A similar trick to Rachel's Laverstone, I guess. I've actually drawn a map of mine, which helps with the plot in terms of who can see what from their windows, journey timings and so on.

I think all of my fiction has places that have some attributes of places I know or have visited. I just like to mix it up a bit.

I would say that if you can visit a place, then do so. That as well as plenty of research. Someone on that other forum suggested that you could interview a local, either in cyberspace or IRL, to get an insight.

Oh go on then, I'll have a cookie.

liz fenwick said...

Great question. I know many writers just use research. Thus far I have set everything where I know it well - as landscape tends to be a 'character' in my books. Regarding a cafe in Camberidge - well as in all place Starbucks is pretty universal...is it the location that's important or what happens there? Also as it isnt your main character and most of the action has thus far been off her brothers truf to you need to be there? I'd say no. However if she gets involved with one of his mates then that is another story...
lx

ChrisH said...

Hi Karen, Stepson Two went to Cambridge (Fitz) - it was a very different atmosphere to the red brick universities our other kids went to. The terms are much shorter and the workloads are intense, hence a much more monastic atmosphere with folks keeping their heads down and working. Do go there, it's not a huge town, much smaller than I expected, but with stunning architecture.

Me? I also think of place and fictionalise it!

Lorna F said...

Hi Karen - it is possible to write about places you haven't visited and with online resources and Google Streetmap and satellite, along with tourist office webcams and so on, things have become much easier. However, if at all possible you should go there: nothing replaces the personal experience of a place. You'll notice things you wouldn't otherwise know about and you'll pick up on the atmosphere. Cambridge is a gorgeous place, so go, girl! Caroline's advice on the admissions structure is right. There is also a site called SciTalk (I'm a bit vague on the reference, so Google it) which has been set up for writers to approach scientists about areas of science they're describing in their novels: it's very interesting and could be useful. Good luck!

Kate.Kingsley said...

Decaff is great for me, as baby's due date of yesterday came & went without an arrival, so I'm still having to watch my cafienne intake!

I tend to set things in places based on somewhere I know, but not specified or named. So a recent short story was based on an area of Sheffield near where I used to live, and I made clear that it was an affluent part of an industrial northern city, but didn't name the area and invented all street/area names.

So if you decide not to visit Cambridge you could maybe allude to it & preent your imagined version of the area, but not name it an let the reader draw their own conclusions.

Well, I'd better get this last OU assignment knocked on the head (just as well the baby isn't here yet, eh?!)

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello Karen - good first post!

I have done both extremes of this, for example i've set two children's books in L.A - but I've never been there. While I did research the film industry quite heavily to get the feel for the location I used google maps, looked up the real addresses of agents of movies producers and made up ones that sounded authentic, read the cities tourist info for road names and cafe and shop names. (You could always make up a cambridge college - as long as the details sound authentic it give you a bit more freedom with the writing?) Then I topped it all up with my imagination and what I think L.A and Hollywood should be like. So far none of my young readers have complained that I got it totally wrong, but then to be fair probably very few of them have been to L.A, if any!! I still think it would better to actually go there and get the sights and sounds and smells, but time and budget doesn't allow for trips to the US!! for my new children's series I've set it in a made up town which is a concrete jungle and I think a mixture of the big estates in North London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes - all of which I know well enough to create up another new place out of them. Quite a lot of my adult novels are set in Cornwall, and I thought I knew it pretty well as I try to go there at least once a year but I was really glad that I took the time to go to St Ives again before finishing The Accidental Family because while you might get the big picture from memory its really the little details that you experience and then relate that really capture the essence of a place - plus its amazing how much your memory of a place differs from the reality. In my WIP one of the characters is writing a historical novel set in the English Civil War - and although that is not the book I'm writing I find that I'm obliged to research the period anyway!! I can't imagine how you imagine he moons of Jupite, Captain - but I am full of admiration. Karen I think its worth a day trip to cambridge if you can make it!x

Graeme K Talboys said...

Make a holiday of it. It might not be the Seychelles, but a long weekend or a week in Cambridge can be fun, especially if you divide your time between research and general sightseeing. No reason why there shouldn't be perks to the job. I have done that in the past with locations (even Durham and Sunderland which I knew well from having lived in the area were revisited simply so I could walk the routes and note details). And try to find people in the know. I have always found people are happy to help (I've had lots in the past from policemen, forensic pathologists, even ex members of the security services).

As the Cap points out, there are some places you just can't go. Several of my novels have scenes inside Thames House and Vauxhall Cross. Thames House was relatively easy as there are lots of pictures of the interior, especially in the follow-up recruitment material (but that's another story). Vauxhall Cross is another matter altogether, so I had my MC looking out at the river most of time and trying to create an atmosphere.

Of course, I have just spent the last half hour on Google Maps at street level 'wandering' round Cambridge. Great for little details that give an authentic feel to work, but in the end I'd say you need to go - or have your MC's brother come visit her.

L-Plate Author said...

And I suppose I am forgetting the estate that I've based my story on. Origanlly it was based in Stoke but when it turned out to be far rougher (honestly) than anywhere in Stoke I took every reference out. Now the estate is based 'anywhere' so that I don't give my home town a worse name. Mind you, I wouldn't have liked to visit the estate to do research as I might have had my eyes gouged out...

I also made up a lovely little town called Somerley in the abandoned book. That was based on a street map of Fenton, a small drive through kindof place in Stoke. I too would feel miffed if like JJ something was wrong or even more so if I'd offended anyone.

Fia said...

I think you might want to go to Cambridge Karen, if you need to set a large scene there.

My grandfather studied medicine at Queen's College, Cambridge (so long ago it might not even exist now.) so as Caroline said, it's a unique set up.

I'm sure you'll love it.

Un Peu Loufoque said...

Go! Go! I think you need to visit or wrie about somewhere you know to get the atmosphere right, nothing more annoying as a reader than someone describing somewhere you know and geting it all wrong!

Lane said...

I tend to fictionalize places I'm already familiar with too. The internet is a wonderful thang but nothing makes up for a personal interpretation.

If you can wangle a trip to Cambridge, go for it. It has a unique atmosphere that no amount of google research could portray.

Great first coffee post Karen. Any cookies left?:-)

Leigh Russell said...

I think you should go to Cambridge on Saturday 11th July, when I'm signing copies of my book in Borders in Cambridge!

As for location, I cheated and invented mine. In my defence, I had no idea the book would ever be published when I wrote it. I'm not sure if I'd have made up a location if I'd known that. If I'd set it in a real place, people living there might have bought the book...

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Chocolate chip cookies? I don't see a crumb left! **waillllll** Serves me right for being this late!

In one of my novels there was a bit about Jersey, but I've read so much about the place I was able to throw in a few solid references (like Jersey Zoo) and just Google the name of the airport and a newspaper.

Another novel is set in Miami where I've spent a lot of time, so I was writing what I knew - except for one chapter set on a famous historical estate that I've driven past many times but never visited. I searched the net for ever ref I could find to the moonlight walks held there and the place itself, then plunged ahead. I just know, though, that some day someone familiar with the gardens will read the book and write me a very scathing letter along the lines of:

"Madam, there are no Florida oaks in the southern section of the garden. They are in the north-west quadrant, and they do not line the path. Also, there are no statues of gargoyles near the water fountain. Don't you writers do any research?" :(

Maybe writers of historicals have an easier time of it...

Annieye said...

I'm so late - two of my kids have birthdays this week.

I think I much prefer fictitious locations if I haven't actually been somewhere. I'm sure it must be much harder to write about a place if not.

Karen said...

Some great comments, and brilliantly helpful ones too - I might still pop to Cambridge though, it's as good an excuse as any :o)