Places, everyone …

“If you send your characters on a voyage, be sure you are acquainted with the countries where their travels lead them, and spin your tales with such magic that I can identify with them. Remember that I voyage at their side wherever you send them to, and that I may know more than you and will not excuse your errors in reporting manners and costumes nor forgive a geographic blunder. …you must make your descriptions of your chosen localities authentic, or else you should stay at home. This is the only area of what you write where invention cannot be tolerated, unless the lands to which you transport me are imaginary.” – Essay on Novels, The Marquis de Sade

Another bit of good advice, no?

Setting the location for your story can be tricky business. The safest approach, of course, is to set the location in or around the area in which you live. Or if it is a ficticious locale, base it on an area with which you are intimately familiar. If you are a science-fiction or fantasy writer, the ‘world’ is your oyster. You have the power of a god to create the world of your dreams. A caution, however –be consistent. Keep extensive notes, make charts and maps. Write a ‘bible’ for your world and its inhabitants. They need a history, an origin story, and even if they are an ‘atheistic’ society, they need a set of beliefs.

Back to the ‘real’ world…  Even here on Earth, extensive note-taking and chart-making are good ideas. Unless your characters are wandering through the Twilight Zone, the post office ALWAYS needs to be across from the library, not sometimes across from the pharmacy. Someone will notice. (Me, probably….) Anyway, don’t get lazy with this stuff or you’ll have a mess on your hands.

And like the Marquis so eloquently stated, “I may know more than you and will not excuse your errors… nor forgive a geopgraphic blunder.” How humiliating would it be to have a reader call you out for a glaring error publicly, either in the comments of your blog post or, even worse, within a review of your work on Amazon?

If you do send the story to a secondary locale, make sure you are also familiar with this one. And if not, for heaven’s sake do exhaustive research. The minutiae of the secondary location might not be a big deal if it isn’t relevant to the story. But the big things need to be accurate. Is there public transportation?  Are there high rise buildings or quaint, clapboard houses? Forests or deserts, mountains or flatlands? How long does it really take to get from point A to point B? Someone will notice… Ahem.

Other things that can hang your story out to dry:

  • Local languages and colloquialisms
  • Weather, climate and seasonal changes
  • Time (Things happening too quickly, for example boy meets girl they fall in love… in the span of three days. Another faux pas is messing up the flow of time, for example a character refers to something that hasn’t happened yet.)
  • Cultural and religious variations among regions (even within a single nation)
  • Politics and government
  • Pop culture (references that can ‘date’ your story, if you want it to be ‘timeless’)
  • Laws and customs (which can vary widely, even within the same country)

I constantly seek new ways to improve my skills as a writer. And thusly, I am enjoying plucking these gems of literary wisdom from the notorious de Sade. I hope, as always, you find this reminder as helpful as I did.

31 thoughts on “Places, everyone …

  1. Love the fact that the Marquis de Sade references travel here because I can’t help but picture him in good hiking boots thereby countering the lyrics from Fools Gold where The Stone Roses sang “these boots were made for walking, the Marquis de Sade don’t make no boots like these…”
    There was a great short story I read by Brian Stableford which references Coventry cathedral. Now, I’m from Coventry so was just a tiny bit surprised by his description, somehow implying that it was an intact medieval structure. It’s a reasonably well-known fact that it was destroyed in WW2. I was left completely puzzled over whether this was a deliberate tweak to indicate some kind of parallel universe – or whether the author was an idiot.

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  2. I’m a bit surprised by the source of the advice, but it seems sensible. I recently read “Making Friends with the Crocodile” by blogger Mick Canning. He wrote from the point of view of a Indian housewife in a fairly remote part of India. He had to think about the types of factors you mentioned and made a very good job of it. He has visited India before and I had the feeling that he had to do a ton of research. It was worth it for the final result, though.

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    1. A friend of mine convinced me to read the de Sade short story collection. It’s not at all controversial in nature, actually. Believe me, I was very surprised! The Essay on Novels is a foreword to the collection and his advice is as true and timeless as any writing advice I’ve seen to date! I know and follow Mick too! Have yet to read the ‘Crocodile’ but plan on it. And it’s certainly the true test of a writer to choose a point of view so completely different from one’s own self. I am even more eager to read the book, after your recommendation. Thanks, Bun!

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  3. Another lesson from the world’s most dubious creative writing teacher. How suave and persuasive he can be, when his mind isn’t on other things, of course. Love the fact that he is popping up here, my he gets everywhere. My next recommendation would be the Philosophy in the Boudoir or the short original version of Justine which is called The Misfortunes of Virtue.

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      1. Absolutely without a doubt. In the second and third versions he just piles on the horrors without really adding anything (except horrors). The first version The Misfortunes of Virtue is shorter, sharper and could have came from the pen of Voltaire. Philosophy again avoids physical cruelty (on the whole) until the completely demented finale, displays humour (a talent for which he is under-rated, it is pitch black humour but nevertheless) and the long interlude of ‘Yet another effort Frenchman, if we are to be good republicans’ is an important statement of his political position. The really long and extreme novels are just too much for me. Misfortunes of Virtue is available from penguin classics and also a selection of his shorter tales, at one point De Sade aimed to be the French Boccaccio.

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      2. Very well. You have yet to steer me wrong. I appreciated the dark and farcical humor of Miss Henrietta Stralson. By the way I finished a rough draft of installment 3 of Small Cuts. Feel like taking a look?

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  4. Researching locations is one of my favorite things. One night, I spent four hours walking around very specific parts of Paris using Google street view. I’ve done this with other places, too… Italy… and a few places in the US. Of course, in-person research would be WAY better…

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    1. That is a fabulous idea! I never thought of that, but what a great way to get a feel for the city or town you are using for your location. I really need to set a story in Tahiti and write off the travel expenses!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s essential. I’ve mostly stayed close to home with my locations, but the story I’m currently writing is set in England so I’m proceeding slowly and carefully. I’ve only been to England as a child. I think it’s time for another visit, don’t you? 🙂

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