Here’s something I’ve wondered about: How important is it to know the location your novel is set in?
While prepping for my novel I read a book on novel-writing and in it, it was mentioned that you should never ever, under no circumstances set the book in a city or area that you have not been to. Well at that point I had already written the first draft of my novel, which is set in New York City.
This was very disconcerting to me because I’ve never been to New York. I’ve lived in many large cities around the world, such as London, Cape Town, and Tel Aviv. When I wrote the novel I based it on the common urban feel that I got in these cities. I also did a lot of research on the individual neighborhoods that are mentioned in the story. I spent hours poring over Google maps and Google Street view. Thanks to Google Street view you can actually take a virtual walk around the area your novel is set in. I feel as though I captured the essence of those neighborhoods pretty well, but I still would like to eventually visit the areas just to compare. Would it have been easier from me to describe the city if I had been there? No doubt! I guess in my story the location is not really all that important. It’s just backdrop to where the story takes place.
Now, there are novels where the location is more important. For instance if you have a novel such as Angels and Demons that takes place in Rome, there are chases all around the city. In that case I would say it is more important for the writer to actually know the streets and little alleys in detail. But is that always the case?
I am currently beta reading a novel for a friend of mine which is set in Key West. My friend has never been to Key West so I was curious to see how she captured the town in her book. I have to say she did very well. I couldn’t tell that she’s never set foot in Key West before. I hope I did the same with my novel and New York City.
In comparison my earlier novel was set in London, and I wrote it while I was living there. I just recently reread it. It was kind of strange to read it because it’s been such a long time and honestly can’t tell if me having lived there at the time improve the description of the setting any or not.
I have an idea for a novel which will be set in an alternate future. I’m looking forward to writing a book that doesn’t have the constraints on world building that a book set in this reality has. Until I write that though I will have to hope that the world I created in In Absentia will be realistic enough to please future readers and agents.