I’m in Nashville today for the Southern Festival of Books, a city I’ve never visited before, a trip I’m taking alone. These last two factors are crucial because, since I know no one here, they force a species of crucial writerly research: where am I going to drink? Or, at very least, where am I going to have dinner?
You know when you are reading a story that’s well anchored in a location because the city (or village, or planet or whatever) feels real in its details, and those details are not wheeled out like an encyclopedia entry but scattered knowingly about like crumbs by the author with apparently careless abandon. It may be research, but it doesn’t feel like research. It feels like the author has lived there all his/her life or—depending on the narrative point of view—that the character has.
This is tough to fake, and it’s one of the reasons that the old Write-What-You-Know mantra still has currency. When you know a town in the way Jim Butcher knows Chicago, say, or Anne Rice knows New Orleans, the reader can feel it. Locals may quibble over fine points, but for the rest of us it grounds the story, makes it seem more palatable and plausible. It gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, and the story feels real as a result.
But writing what you know is risky, especially for writers who are just starting out, because sometimes the mere fact that you know something to be true feels like a good enough reason to include it in the story. It’s not, of course, and detailing every store on the block your hero walks down is likely to feel show-offy, irrelevant and increasingly annoying.
So how do you get the balance? You want to add enough specifics that the environment is credible, familiar even, without it overwhelming the story.
Last night I spoke to the concierge at my hotel, got a little map, and set off walking a few blocks to an area of Nashville where there was a decent concentration of bars and restaurants. Once there, I peered in windows, considered menus, and selected a barbecue place called Puckett’s Grocery, where they smoke their dry-rubbed ribs for eight hours and serve them with a little corn pancake, sweet baked beans and a potato salad which has enough mustard in it that it looks like scrambled eggs. I got there at happy hour and had two local brews served in moonshine jars, while watching the staff set up the stage for the band that would be playing later. It’s Nashville, of course, so there were signed guitars on the walls, but the clientele were dominated by Steelers fans in town for the Titans game, though it was easy to spot the locals, especially the women. There’s clearly a Nashville ‘look’ where hair, make up and spangly jeans is concerned. It’s both bold and prim, a little Jersey shore goes country.
I’ll spare you more detail, except to say that I feel I could set a scene in a place like that and make it feel like I’d been going there for years. I’d hold on to the map for reference, maybe pull a few online reviews to see what dishes people get enthusiastic about, or if they note a recent change in the service (though I’m unlikely to say anything critical about a real place). I’d probably want to go back (and not just for the ribs) to ask the waitresses a few questions, eves drop on a few tables, and gather a few more physical specifics of the place and its people, but it wouldn’t be hard to make the place feel like it was alive and that my sense of the place wasn’t merely that of a tourist.
Again, the environment I want to write is alive and interesting in its own right, but it’s still basically a set whose purpose is to provide context for the action of the scene. The story is about the people and what they do in that place, and if the setting starts to steal focus, I will pare the detail back.
So next time you are at a loose end and looking for a way to make a scene in your book feel distinct, interesting and real, take a walk. Sitting for an hour by yourself in a strange place makes you rely on your senses in ways you don’t when you are somewhere you already know or when you are with other people. It’s a great way to anchor a scene and—by extension, if you have enough of them—the setting of an entire novel.