One of the traditional maxims of writing is to ‘write what you know.’ And there’s certainly a lot to be said for that. Readers want a sense of authenticity in their stories, and that’s just as true of a story’s setting as it is anything else. So, does that mean that an author shouldn’t write about a different place or time, even a different country?
No. Many authors set their stories in places other than their own countries or in different times. And those stories are often absorbing, engaging, and authentic. There are a lot of examples of this sort of series. I’ll just mention a few.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels take place mostly in the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia, who is eleven at the time the series begins (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), lives there with her father and two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ Also very much a part of the family is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. The novels have a strong sense of place and time (the 1950s). And the village itself is an important part of the series. And yet, Bradley isn’t English; he’s Canadian by birth and upbringing, although he now lives on the Isle of Man. But, as Bradley himself has said,
‘I grew up in a family of British expat storytellers who never tired of spinning stories about “back ’ome.”
And that was at the core of Bradley’s interest in writing about England.
Sometimes, authors write about places they have lived, even if those places are not their home countries. That’s the case with Angela Savage, who writes the Jayne Keeney series. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. She travels to different parts of Thailand in connection with her investigations, so readers get a chance to see different regions of the country. Savage is Australian, based in Melbourne, but she lived in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, for six years. She’s also a skilled researcher who checks the accuracy of what she writes. And that’s important if one’s writing about a country with a very different language, culture and set of social expectations. Interestingly, Savage chose to make Keeney an Australian by birth, which adds to the authenticity of the stories as Keeney sometimes looks at the Thai culture ‘from the outside.’
>A similar thing might be said of Savage’s partner, Andrew Nette. One of his novels, Ghost Money, is set mostly in Cambodia. In it, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired to find a man named Charles Avery, who was last seen in Bangkok. Quinlan agrees to the job and begins to follow the trail, which soon leads to Phnom Penh. Later, the action moves to the northern part of Cambodia. Throughout the novel, there’s a vivid portrait of life in that country. Like his partner, Nette is Australian, based in Melbourne. But he’s lived in Asia, where he was a journalist there for seven years. That experience has arguably added to the authenticity of the story, even though Cambodia has a very different culture and language.
Fans of Deborah Crombie will know that she is American, born and raised in Texas. She got the chance to go to the UK after graduating university and fell in love with the place. She lived there for several years, until moving back to Texas. So it’s little wonder that her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novels take place in the UK, mostly in London. Both Kincaid and James work for the Met, where Kincaid is a Superintendent and James is a Detective Inspector (DI). They are partners in life, too, and the series follows their relationship and family as well as the cases they investigate. Crombie travels to the UK several times a year, and her connection adds to the authenticity of this series.
There are other authors, too, such as Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett, who spend quite a lot of time in the countries where their series are set (in these two cases, Bangkok). And that adds a lot of authenticity to what they write. But there’s more to authenticity of place than that.
There’s also research. K.B. Owen, for instance, sets her Concordia Wells series mostly in Connecticut at the very end of the 19th Century. In order to make this series ‘feel’ authentic, Owen has done quite a lot of research on life at that time. And I know you could think of many other authors, too, who write historical series that seem authentic. They do their ‘homework’ to ensure that their stories ring true.
How do you feel about this? Do you get a sense of authenticity from a story even if the author doesn’t live in the place or time where the story is set? If you’re a writer, do you write about places and times you haven’t experienced? How do you make it all authentic?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It?