Being There – Wherever ‘There’ Is
by Janet Gover
As a reader, I like to feel as if I’m in the story with the characters. I want to see what they see and feel what they feel. As a writer, I want to give my readers the same experience.
A factual error in a fictional world will drag me out of a book so fast that I never want to go back. For example, I once read a book which had a character fly from Rio to New York in about four hours. I’ve never done that trip but I know it’s going to take more time than that. I never finished the book.
I know a lot about the Aussie outback – I used to live there. But what if I want to write about somewhere I don’t know? Let’s say I want to send my heroine on a shopping spree in LA (my heroines get to do a lot of cool stuff that I would really like to do).
My first online stop is Google maps. I find the street I want – in this case Rodeo Drive (where else). Then I zoom in until shop names start appearing on the map. I discover that Ralph Lauren and Armani are next to each other – but if she wants Dior she’s going to have to cross the street. The map also tells me that Saks Fifth Avenue is two blocks away on Wiltshire – so I can’t have her notice it and decide to go there.
Then I use the street view (drag the little yellow man into the road and away we go). I can walk down Rodeo Drive and notice that there’s a flower bed down the centre of the street. That flower bed is going to be tricky if she tries to cross it in her new stiletto heels from Jimmy Choo (just up the road). She might stumble in front of a sports car driven by our hero.
The sounds and smells I have to imagine myself but often the view well help. I see a restaurant – so she smells the food. I see a playground – she hears children laughing. I see those flower beds – she gets bitten by a bee.
My next stop is a good guidebook (or online tourism site) for the local colour. What time of year is she there – August? It’s going to be hot so she’ll be wearing a light cotton dress and she’ll probably be sweating. A lot of Spanish is spoken in LA – so perhaps she doesn’t understand directions she’s given.
Remote places are a little harder. I always Google a remote region I’m writing about. There may be blogs describing visits there, with useful photos. If the road I want hasn’t been mapped, I use the Google Maps satellite image. That can tell me a lot about a region. If there are no visible roads – that helps too. I might decide her car will overheat and break down on some off-road track. She might be a little frightened being alone in such a remote place. When our hero finally finds her, she’s going to be highly emotional.
I guess by now you’ve begun to notice something else about my settings. The locations are more than just stage dressing – they contribute to plot and to character development. But that’s only going to work if the settings are real – real enough to transport the reader into a new place and time. That’s the magic I look for in the books I read. I sometimes get e-mail from readers saying they can really picture my outback settings. Maybe even smell the red dust. That’s the moment when I know that I too have made a little bit of magic.
Janet Gover, author of Girl Racers, The Bachelor and Spinster Ball and The Farmer Needs a Wife, spends most of her time sitting in a shoe-box sized apartment in New York, writing books about the Australian outback where she grew up. When not writing, she helps establish high-tech digital production systems for making TV programs – and occasionally bumps into handsome movie stars.
Read more about her at www.janetgover.com.