Writing What You Know: Setting Your Books at Home

Write What You Know. It’s one of the biggest — if not the biggest — piece of advice given to new writers. It has its flaws, of course. Unless you’re writing an autobiography, you can’t write something that is 100% based on what you know. Even if your main character has the same job as you, and lives in the same place, presumably there are some differences between your life and theirs? (I hope?)

It’s even harder when you’re writing speculative fiction (a broad church that includes everything from sci-fi to high fantasy to dystopian time travelling steampunk). But that’s where copious research and a vivid imagination come in handy. My most recently completed manuscript is the first one I’ve finished that isn’t an urban fantasy, and I set it in a fantasy equivalent of Ancient Greece. Despite my name, I don’t have a drop of Greek blood (Mum just liked the sound of Cassandra, to her Greek obstetrician’s horror). 

My search engine knows my research predilections so well that if I just type in an “A” it suggests “Ancient Greek” as the first two words of the search. Stalker.

However. I’ve released four urban fantasies, and “write what you know” is the reason that they are largely set in my home city of Canberra. In my mind, Melaina (from Lucid Dreaming) and Isla (from the Isla’s Inheritance trilogy) live in the same Canberra, too, not alternate versions of the same city. I love the idea of them running into each other at the mall and each not recognising the other for what they are.

Yes, I said Canberra. I’ll wait a second while you reel in shock. Go on — I won’t judge.

Canberra: the nation’s capital. Reviled across Australia as (allegedly) the soulless, out-of-touch political heart of the country. As Canberrans love to point out, though, almost all the politicians that live here for part of the year are FIFO workers from other parts of the country — so if they bring a deficit of soul and a tendency to replace their leaders every other Tuesday with them, whose fault is that? We didn’t vote for them! 😉

Canberra is, in some ways, an overgrown country town. The city sprawls over 812 square kilometers, but has a population density almost a fifth of Sydney’s, and just over a third of Melbourne’s. What that means is we have a lot more green spaces than either of them do: reserves running through suburbs; low mountains covered in walking trails and with lookouts perched on top; parks for the kids to play. It’s a great place to raise a family.

And the perfect place to set a story when your supernatural population likes green spaces.

The National Museum, from Mount Ainslie. How's the serenity? (Photo credit: Cassandra Page)

The National Museum, from Mount Ainslie. How’s the serenity? (Photo credit: Cassandra Page)

Werewolves and fairies would love it here. There are places with hardly any iron or steel, and green corridors a wolf or other shifter could sneak through. Vampires would have to be careful how they hunted given the lower numbers of humans to snack on, but depending on their appetites they’d do alright too. They could eat the politicians.

I admit that I wondered at first whether setting a supernatural tale here would somehow lack credibility, and whether I should instead pick Sydney or Melbourne, even though I’m less familiar with them. But then I thought, if Sookie Stackhouse can run into vampires in a tiny town like Bon Temps, why can’t Canberra have its own supernatural stories, that element of magic?

When I see the sunlight sparkling off the surface of Lake Burley Griffin on a crisp autumn afternoon, or the glittering lights of the city from Mount Ainslie at dusk, I think that magic is already there. All I’m doing is telling people about it.

So, here’s my advice, in no particular order:

  • Write what you know
  • Research what you don’t
  • Make up the fantastical bits
  • Set your books where the story demands they be set, even — or especially — if that’s not the trendy location
  • Just write

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer whose young adult urban fantasy Isla’s Inheritance — the first book in the trilogy of the same name — is currently FREE. Get you some! #ShamelessPromotion

Cassandra Page

Using Travel In Your Writing

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Right now, I am in England. This picture is of me…well, my wellies, anyway, on a day below zero degrees. I’m here for a month to visit my family, to do some sightseeing, stuff like that. But it has also been really invaluable for my writing.

At the moment I’m working on a YA contemporary called The Daisy List.

It’s set in – you guessed it – England. While I do make up a fair portion of it, being here helps me get a feel for the weather, the culture, the shops and the food and the environment. Going to London meant that I could pinpoint exactly where Daisy might go.

Like here, for example.

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I took this photo on the side of the Thames opposite the Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It’s also right next to the London Eye. There’s a scene in my novel where Daisy and her friend sit and toss chips to seagulls, just talking. Being able to sit there myself was absolutely amazing. And since I’ve revised that scene now, I think it lends a sort of authenticity to it.

So I take photos of lots of things. Some might never be used.

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(although it WAS extremely delicious)

When I get back to Australia I can look at all these photos and use them for whatever I like. I keep a travel journal as well, detailing differences between Aus and England (there are many) and the places I’ve been. Detail is always better than being vague – readers can tell when a setting hasn’t been fleshed out. World-building is just as important in contemporary as in fantasy.

But travel can also help with other genres apart from contemporary.

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The castle in the distance here could be where a king lives. It could be the portal to another world. It could be anything.

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This frozen spiderweb could be the clue that the Snow Queen has returned. And yes that WAS an excuse to use this picture! You don’t often see frozen spiderwebs in Australia.

Of course, travel isn’t completely necessary to flesh out settings.

Not everyone gets these opportunities, and imagination is always going to be a writer’s best tool. But if you are travelling – don’t waste it. Even if you don’t have a novel set in that particular place, who knows? You might use it one day. Take photos. Take notes. Use everything.

Because already I think The Daisy List is a better book.

 

 

 

So Emily’s doing lots of things. By the time this blog post goes up she will have done the Harry Potter tour in London. Yay! Then she’s jetting off to Paris on the 16th, in the hopes of eating lots of croissants and taking billions of photos.

Because you never know when you’re going to set a novel in France, do you?

She’s also close to the launch of her new blog, loonyliterate.com, which is very exciting. She hopes everyone is having a good start to 2015.