I Write About What’s Real to Me*

Authentic Writing Phil Northern DEOne of the many things to love about reading is the sense of place one gets in a well-written novel. Some books give us a new perspective on places we know well; others show us places we’ve never been. But either way, a solid and authentic sense of place and therefore culture adds much to a story. Some would say it’s an essential ingredient.

Giving readers a sense of place and culture is partly a matter of scenery, locations and so on. But it’s more than that. It’s also giving readers a sense of the way the people who live in that place speak, act and interact. Subtle nuances such as eating customs, idioms and so on can give a novel a real richness. They can also add real authenticity to a novel and have readers thinking, ‘I felt like I was there.’

What’s interesting about that authenticity is that we may not pay close attention to it unless it’s not there. That’s when many readers get cranky.  For instance, I read a blog review recently of a novel that takes place in the US, but where the characters didn’t ‘feel American.’ I understand the point. However one defines ‘being American,’ or ‘being Australian,’ or ‘being English, ‘ or ‘being Russian,’ (or any other culture for the matter of that), one wants fictional characters to seem authentic.

As with most things in writing though, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. On the one hand, people do notice a lack of authenticity and sense of place. And they often get ill-tempered about it. On the other hand, if the characters aren’t interesting in and of themselves (apart from their cultures), then what the author intends as authenticity can come off as stereotyped. If the plot isn’t interesting, then the setting can’t always save a story. And there is such a thing as ‘dumping’ information about a culture or setting. That makes readers cranky too. Nonetheless, a skilled author shows what a place is like in all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

Some authors (I’m thinking for instance of Deon Meyer, Nelson Brunanski, Denise Mina and Domingo Villar) are members of the cultures depicted in their stories. They write authentically because they know from growing up in those cultures what they’re like. I’m sure you have your own list of favourite authors like that – authors who are skilled at sharing their own ‘home’ settings, cultures, speech patterns and the like. It takes a special ability to balance writing about one’s own culture while at the same time including and welcoming readers who may not know about it. And a word of praise is due too I think to those who translate these authors’ stories. It takes a great deal of skill to capture that authenticity in another language. Trust me. So kudos to people such as Stephen Sartarelli, Anne Trager, Marlaine Delargy and Martin Schifino.

Other authors write truly authentic novels because they’ve lived in an area for a long time and really gotten to know the culture. That’s true for instance of Peter Temple. Born in South Africa, he moved to Australia in 1980 and he’s set his novels there. His stories and characters are distinctly Australian. In fact, his novel Truth won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award, which is given to a novel


‘…which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’


You can’t get much more Australian than that.

The same sort of thing might be said of Tony Hillerman. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to the American Southwest and became thoroughly familiar with the Navajo Nation. Hillerman fans know that his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series portrays life among the Dineh (the Navajo) in a respectful and authentic way. In fact it’s easy to forget (or perhaps it’s just me) that Hillerman was not a member of the Navajo Nation. He spent years among the Navajos and got to know the culture, the language and the subtle nuances of life and interaction before he really wrote about them. And he did so in such an authentic way that the Navajo Nation gave him their Special Friend of the Dineh Award – a mark of true respect.

As an interesting (well, I hope so) side note, Hillerman is said to have been much inspired by the work of Arthur Upfield, Upfield was originally from the UK, but moved to Australia in 1910. Most of his novels are about half-Aboriginal police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. Upfield was neither born in Australia nor a member of any of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures. And yet his depictions of the land and the people ring very true.

Authors can also do a lot careful research to make sure their stories are authentic in terms of characters, language, interactions, setting and the like. Of course, it’s a good idea for any author to ‘do the homework’ as a part of writing a story. Otherwise the story is not only inauthentic, it’s inaccurate. And that’s another thing that can make readers quite grouchy. And authors such as Shona (S.G.) MacLean and William Ryan have to rely quite a bit on that careful work because they write historical series. So they have the added challenge of giving readers a realistic sense of a different time with different technology, assumptions, lifestyles, and lots more.

What about you? Do you find yourself irritated if the characters and setting you’re reading about don’t feel authentic to you? Or are you more plot-driven, so if the story is a good one, that’s what matters? If you’re a writer, what do you tap to make the story authentic? Your own experience? Research? Something else?


ps. The ‘photo is of winter in Southeastern Pennsylvania/Northern Delaware. I write about that area in part because it’s my home. I know the place.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hands Like Houses’ Weight.


Filed under Anne Trager, Arthur Upfield, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Domingo Villar, Marlaine Delargy, Martin Schifino, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Shona MacLean, Stephen Sartarelli, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan

26 responses to “I Write About What’s Real to Me*

  1. Margot, I think that sense of authenticity is what we find in Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. I have never been there, but I think Smith captures the characters and personalities of Mma Ramotswe and the other main players beautifully, and lets us see their culture through their eyes. And I don’t think it has to be “either/or” when it comes to plot and characters – Agatha Christie may well have been the most brilliant plotter ever, but she also created memorable characters in many of her books!

    • Les – Good point about plotting/sense of place. Really skilled writers give readers both. And you’re right about the McCall Smith series too. If I’m correct, he was born in what was then Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). An author as skilled as he doesn’t necessarily have to have lived in an area to write well about it, but in my opinion, his experiences in that part of Africa have added much to the authenticity of that series.

  2. I have a particular thing about writers who set books in England and don’t appear ever to have visited here, they make elementary mistakes, tripping up the reader. A recent one I read had someone walking around in the city of Cambridge in December, and saying the streets were empty because all the students had gone home. No-one who had EVER visited Cambridge could think that might be true, and those of us who have lived there, and battled the busy pre-Christmas shops and streets, would just laugh. On the other hand, an authentic setting is a wonderful thing, giving a real sense of place and a look at a different culture. I love CJ Box’s books for that, I really feel I know Joe’s part of Wyoming now, with the good, the bad, the conservation issues and the politics.

    • Moira – I know just what you mean. Really? Just before Christmas? Deserted streets? No, I don’t think so. That’s where I think real research is crucial. Ideally you’d spend some time in a place before writing about it. But if for some reason that weren’t at all possible, one would hope you’d talk to people who live there or do something to get a real sense of a place.
      I agree with you about Box’s work too. He’s a native of Wyoming and of course, knows the place. So it’s no wonder his work is infused with it. And he has a solid ability to tell a story without ‘dumping’ information about that part of the US on the reader while doing so.

  3. Skywatcher

    Knowing somewhere well can be important, but it’s not always needed. Sherlock Holmes’ London is an important part of Doyle’s stories, but when he started writing them he had spent very little time in the metropolis. In a sense he created his own London; a rather magical place where anything could happen. To an extent the same is true of the Dartmoor of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. He was shown around the area by a friend, but he was able to turn the real place into a landscape of dreams and nightmares. It’s probably why none of the film or TV adaptions of that novel can be entirely satisfying.

    • Skywatcher – You make an interesting point. Although Holmes is said to know London very well, if you read the stories carefully, their real draw isn’t the various streets. Same with the Dartmoor of Hound…. Rather, it’s the atmosphere that Conan Doyle created. Thanks for the background information, too.

  4. kathy d.

    I would say that Adrian Hyland does a superb job setting the Australian locations, especially where Indigenous peoples live, in his Emily Tempest books. It’s a joy to read his descriptions. And Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman books give a very good sense of Melbourne life.
    And, going on to write about authors who live in one country but set books in another, Australian Angela Savage’s Thailand-located stories have taught me a lot, and sent me to Google more information about the country’s flora and fauna.
    Donna Leon, who moved to Venice, Italy decades ago does a superb job with her series about Commissario Guido Brunetti, which is set there. A reader feels like he or she is in the questura or at the Brunettis’ dinner table or in a trattoria with the detective and his colleagues or on a vaporetto going to a crime scene. This is one reason to read these books.
    And I will say that Fred Vargas’ series set in various regions of France give a real feeling for the locations.
    The sense of place is one reason why I am drawn to certain series, but they have to contain interesting characters and good plots. A sense of place isn’t enough, but it is surely a draw to me.

    • Kathy – You’ve mentioned some authors whose work I really like a lot. And part of the appeal of their work is a really strong sense of place without the details being ‘dumped’ on the reader. In Hyland’s case, he’s Australian and has spent time in the Outback, where his Emily Tempest novels take place. So he has a real sense of life there. Vargas and Greenwood are also natives of the places they write about, and they do an excellent job (in my opinion) of conveying their home cultures. And as you say, Leon has lived in Venice for a very long time, so she’s learned quite a lot about life there.
      Interesting point you make about characters and plot too. An authentic sense of place and culture is a draw, but if the plot isn’t interesting and the characters don’t appeal, it isn’t enough.

  5. That’s very interesting Margot – I can certainly think of many examples where I feel I learned a lot about a place I have not actually visited, such as when I read Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. On the other hand there plenty where I thought depictions of Italian life and especially its speech were unconvincing – but I sort of expect that is the author isn’t local. I’ll have to put my thinking cap on to come up with ones that I thought were flat out wrong – hmm, still mulling – thanks Margot (to be continued) 🙂

    • Sergio – I’ll be really interested in your examples. It’s not as easy if you aren’t from a place (or at least have lived there) to spot when something is wrong. Sometimes I think one can get a sense that something doesn’t feel authentic. But as to really knowing, I think you have to know the place very well. Oh, and I agree with you about Indriðason’s work. He does an excellent job I think of conveying an authentic sense of life in Iceland. All of the details are authentic, but they don’t burden the reader.

  6. I think a sense of place is far better conveyed in crime fiction than in other kinds of books, because it’s the genre where those small details become so terribly important and relevant. And I agree with you, Margot, and with other comments, that you don’t need an awful lot of those details (or a lecture about them) to capture that authentic feel of place. I love books with a strong sense of place (although it doesn’t make up for failings in the plot and characterisation department). Simenon captures Paris for me, Jakob Arjouni gives flavour to boring old Frankfurt – but they were natives. To my mind, Michael Dibdin does a sterling job with Aurelio Zen’s Italy and Robert Wilson with Seville – although perhaps we would have to ask native Italians and Spaniards if they just ‘sound plausible’ or are in fact very authentic.

    • Marina Sofia – You put that very well. The small subtle details can give a novel a very strong sense of place, and one doesn’t need a long lecture or even dozens of the details. And yes, those small things matter quite a lot in crime fiction. I hadn’t thought about that when I was writing this post, but you’re quite right about that.
      Thanks too for mentioning Simenon (whose work really does convey Paris very well) and Arjouni. As you say, they know their homes. As to Dibdin and Wilson, I’d love to hear from natives about their novels too, but they do feel authentic.

  7. I’ve read some fine westerns by authors who were neither American nor lived in America. If I didn’t read about these writers, I wouldn’t know they came from outside the United States. They wrote as well as any American author and expert on frontier fiction would. I enjoyed reading them all the same.

    • Prashant – You make an interesting point. It’s certainly possible to write an excellent novel with a real sense of place even if you haven’t lived in that place. It’s a matter of research, talking to people who’ve been there, and adding in those little details that evoke the place effectively.

  8. Strong plot and characterisation are important of course, but so is a convincing sense of place. That’s why I love Peter May’s work – he researches thoroughly, spending time in a place before he writes about it, and it shows, whether in his China novels, the French series or his Lewis trilogy. And I’ve just finished the new Rebus, and commented in my review that Rankin reflects not just Edinburgh but a sense of what’s happening in Scottish society in each novel he writes.

    • FictionFan – You’re quite right about the value of a sense of place. It helps bind the story together. And yes indeed, May does that brilliantly and so does Rankin. I always really feel the many layers of Edinburgh whenever I read one of his books and you’re right; it’s not just the physical setting. It’s the ethos.

  9. I love to read about places I haven’t been to, but of course I have no sense of whether they are accurate or not. So it was very interesting to read all of the suggestions in your post and in the comments on good series to read that get it right.

    I admit that if I read novels set in the US, I am rarely critical because a person’s take on an environment and activities may be so different from mine. Or they may get it so right, as in the southern US, that I feel uncomfortable reliving scenes I would rather forget.

    • Tracy – Oh, now that’s a good point! When an author strikes ‘too close to home,’ it can make the reader feel a little uncomfortable can’t it? Interesting! I’ve had that happen too. And you’re right that we also have to take into account that people’s perspectives vary when it comes to a place. What you see may not be what someone else does, and that’s bound to affect the way an author writes.

  10. Col

    Plot and character can overcome issues with settings for me, in the same way character and setting can carry a weak plot. The main issue I have is if I don’t empathise with some of the characters in particular the lead or conversely the victim.

    • Col – I know what you mean I think almost all of us will forgive one or another weakness if something else about a novel is particularly well-done. But yes, if there no characters I care about, then I get cranky too. I think it’s important to be able to make a connection with at least one of the characters.

  11. I do like a good sense of place and I love to experience places I haven’t experienced myself. A good example of this recently was the book club read, White Heat by MJ McGrath. It was a setting so entirely different to my lifestyle that I just soaked it all up. It felt real and authentic to me and I loved it.

    • Rebecca – I know exactly what you mean. I agree about the sense of place in White Heat too. You can really soak up a setting indeed when it’s that well done.

  12. kathy d.

    White Heat is a very good example of an author who doesn’t live in Ellesmere Island being able to convey what it feels like to live there. One must stay warm while reading it, but not pay attention to the menu.

  13. Margot – One thing I think of in the context of sense of place is the tricky practice of eye dialect, and how it can be overdone. A related aspect is the skill of the narrator in recorded books versions of mysteries to invoke a sense of place, especially through accents. Echoing Les’s comments on the Ladies Detective Agency, narrator Lisette Lecat does a spectacular job of invoking place through her variations on local accent in the books on CD versions.

    • Bryan – You’re quite right about eye dialect. In small doses it can be effective if the author has a deft hand. But it is indeed easily overdone. And as to recorded narrations, I think narrators who can bring a place to life are highly undervalued, so I’m glad you mentioned Lisette Lecat. People like that, who can bring out the life in a story, add so much to the reader’s experience. And a poor narration can take away at least as much.

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