How to write about places you’ve never been to – Guest Post by Stuart White

Tales from the Falkland Islands…and writing research tips!

I am proud to present a guest post by my friend and mentor, Stuart White. Please read his impressive biography HERE.

Real Research: Writing about faraway places, part 2

A guest post by Stuart White

RESEARCH – AND HOW TO DO IT IF YOU CAN’T GET TO THE PLACE.

By Stuart White

Author – Stuart White

Last week I stressed the importance of trying to visit a place where your story is set.

And I could almost hear the cries of, “OK for you buddy, but I’ve got twelve bucks to last me the week and two kids to feed. I can hardly make rent, let alone get on a plane to Paris.”

And you’ve got a valid point. But I think I did say ‘If you can get there.’

So this week I’m going to give you some tips of how to get the feel and smell and sense of a place, despite the fact you haven’t got the moolah to get there.

But first to tie up the loose threads of last post, when I described my trip to South America and the Falklands Islands to do research on my script ‘Death at Sea.’

Another aspect of that ‘research’ was a practical one. Death at Sea has a show reel – a sort of five-minute filmed teaser outlining what the project is. At the moment it consists of some old newsreel film of the conflicts and still pictures of the ships and the protagonists.

So it was suggested it might be an idea to get some current footage of the area in which our story took place and scenes are set – like shots of Montevideo, where British and German spies recruited locals in a deadly cloak and dagger game to uncover secrets about the other nation’s fleets.

Like the Falklands, showing the harbor from which the British fleet fired its first shots, then the actual waters the battle took place.

Likewise off Coronel, south of Valparaiso and the port itself where several scenes are set – including a banquet at which the German admiral was honored.

So with video camera and tripod in hand, I filmed like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice…out at dawn doing sunrises…then sunsets…the ship pitching and swaying, spray shooting over the bows…and the stormy seas in which brave men died.

When that goes to the director he hopes to cut it into the original show reel, including some voice-over commentaries from yours truly.

But now back to research and how to make yours effective without you jet-setting around the world.

 In 2003 I wrote a novel called The Valhalla Secret (since become an optioned screenplay) which is set in the final days of Berlin in 1945 as Soviet troops capture the German capital.

I had been to Berlin and walked its streets and had three or four excellent books on the subject to aid my research. But I wasn’t born when the Nazis were defeated, so short of a time machine I was stuck as for the real atmosphere of the period.

What I needed was someone who’d been there then; a living witness. And by good fate and chance, I found one in my condo block in Los Angeles.

The German-born woman’s name was Ursula and she’d been fourteen years old in 1945. She agreed to talk to me.

Her eyes were haunted as she recounted the shelling; women hit by shrapnel as they stood in line to get water from a stand-pipe. The hunger and her mother desperately carving meat from a just-killed horse.

The ‘hurra-hurra’ cries of the Russian front-line soldiers, and the screams of women being raped in their homes. Ursula’s account wasn’t unique, my books contained such accounts, but hearing her account made it real for me, and I believe contributed to the later scenes I wrote.

So…your novel is set in Paris, or Venice, or New York. First off try to find someone who is from there, has lived there or visited a lot. Then just talk to them about the place.

Ask them about smells? What does Paris smell like in the spring or fall? Do the drains still whiff pungently? (They used to when I first went there).

Is there the pungent aroma of Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes? Does the Metro still have a lingering scent of steel and blast furnace as it did, or have the new luxurious cushioned carriages eliminated that?

What do Parisians eat for breakfast – croissants? (More likely a chunk of bread without butter – and strong, bitter coffee).

Do French women still say “Ooh-la-la…” and do French men struggling with English say, “It ees, ‘ow you say, ze…”

The former is – incredibly  – true, they do. The latter is a cliché to be avoided like the plague (forgive the satire).

What newspaper would a Parisian sit reading in a café – Le Monde the cerebral world-respected journal? In my view he’s more likely to read Le Figaro. (As in New York you’d more likely see someone reading the Daily News than the New York Times).

See what I’m getting at? Try to get outside the kind of tourist brochure cliché of Paris and the French people (or any city) and inside the reality.

Do French people always say “Bonjour’ and “Bonsoir” on greeting you? Yes, they do. It’s almost compulsory. And you’re supposed to say it too. Don’t, and they’ll say you are ‘mal eleve.’ Badly brought up.

I’m not going to go on about what I think the real Paris is, but you can find it out from people who’ve lived there or visited.

And from movies; watch French movies, older ones if your story is set some while ago, and modern ones if it’s set there now. Get a feel for the rhythm of Parisian (or French) life.

Let the images soak in until you’re absorbing the culture the mode of living. Do Frenchmen still wear berets? Well, only the older ones. Do all French people smoke? It’s not as bad as Tokyo or Eastern Europe and smoking is banned in all public places, but smoking is ubiquitous in public spaces, especially in Paris.

As for Paris, so to for Venice, or New York, or Cleveland – or indeed any town or location you can’t visit. And if your novel is set in a time that no-one can possibly be alive now, then read first-hand accounts, even old travel books. It’s astonishing what information you can turn up.

Do anything and everything you can to make that place – and time – come alive.

Another incredible source of information on past places and times are reproductions of newspapers of that period. They are quite commonplace now and yield masses of information about prices (from the advertisements) and the minutiae of daily life.

French WW2 magazine

I have sets of French newspapers from World War Two which were invaluable in writing a script called, ‘To The Very Gates’ about a woman arrested in Vichy France in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz.

French newspapers WW2

Look for the little, apparently inconsequential things. I was once researching the life of King George the Third, the man who ‘lost America’, That is, the American Revolution happened on his watch.

Everyone knows that George suffered periods of insanity (caused by a condition called porphyria) and films have been made of it like, “The Madness of King George.”

But reading a book on the American Revolution I came across a little known fact about King George that I one day hope to use.

He wasn’t terribly eclectically educated, but when caught out on something he didn’t know, he would bluff and affect to think it strange.

Some American colonists were describing a new agricultural development to him. The King not having the faintest idea what they were talking about, but not wishing – as he saw it – to show his ignorance, stroked his chin, pulled a puzzled face, and said, “Well that’s very strange. Very strange indeed.”

The colonists were baffled and embarrassed as well they might be. And I swear that one day that line is going into something I write.

So from Gitanes to George, from Berlin to regal bafflement, there’s always something you can add to your script by off-the-grid research.

Good hunting!

 

by

Scout

I'm a stay-at-home mom writer and blogger. Writing my novel!

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