Am I Really Just Lazy? (Or Can You Write What You Don’t Know?)

This is a question that has been plaguing me for the past few weeks…okay, okay…the past few months. I had a novel in the works–my first non-fantasy novel, in fact–I had an outline, I had a cast of characters, I could even see how the whole thing would come together. Then, I got stuck. I wanted to set my novel in modern day London. Blame Sherlock, blame my inability to write about Texas, but I just couldn’t imagine a better backdrop for a story with old family trees and political intrigue. 

There’s a slight problem. Despite countless hours spent binge-watching British TV, reading British novels, and occasionally thinking with a British accent, I haven’t been to England since I was about twelve. Over a decade ago (sidebar–what). I don’t know the neighbo(u)rhoods, the (s)language, the normal day-to-day feel of the city. The description that usually comes fairly easily to me feels stilted–it’s usually some version of cold and gray, even though my London experience was made up of blazing sun and temperatures in the 90s.

I don’t think it helped that I workshopped the first two chapters for class last semester. The feedback was so helpful and I’m glad I had the chance to receive critique, but I’ve never workshopped a novel before and I find myself “self-editing” as I write, which is a killer for my already tenuous confidence in the project.

I’m in a course this semester that’s all about archival research–I thought it would be helpful, and it could be, but after hearing my professor talk about the YEARS she spent just doing research for the biography she wrote, I don’t know if I could handle it. I’ve thought about re-situating the story in Boston or New Orleans, and Texas has been suggested. I have to admit, New Orleans is tempting. I don’t know a whole lot about the city, but I know more about it and general Southern culture than I do about London. There’s also the thought that a trip to New Orleans for research would be much more within the realm of affordability than a trip to the UK. In case you’re interested in what this mystery novel is about, look no further.

Tell No Tales

The family that schemes together, stays together

Clara’s life is not what one would call luxurious, but it suits her. After escaping the clutches of her power-hungry family at thirteen and living with her maternal grandfather, Clara is content to live out her life in anonymity—with no one the wiser that she is part of the powerful Lacey family. A “chance” meeting in a cemetery disrupts the plans Clara had for her life and she finds herself thrust headfirst into the intrigue and secrecy she fought so hard to escape.

“Is there a point to this whining?” you may be wondering (if you’ve made it this far) and yes, yes there is! 

This is a call to writers out there–have you ever started a project and decided to completely change something in the framework as basic and yet major as setting? Did it work? Have you written a story set in a (real-world) place unfamiliar to you? Did you do research, did you visit?

I hope these won’t be questions asked to the void–I would really appreciate and enjoy some discussion. 

12 thoughts on “Am I Really Just Lazy? (Or Can You Write What You Don’t Know?)

  1. Yes, yes, yes and bloody London! Why is it always London? The pompeous gentlemen keeps getting placed in books.
    Never been there. Research? My son thinks its boring! I edit as I write, like I duplicate myself and make the other one extremely harsh. I change directions and events as tho the character inside is really alive and aiming to shock me.
    Hope this helps, so you at least don’t feel as though you are alone in this! 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment! Nice to know I’m not alone.

      I’m impressed that you can edit and keep writing that way! I find I get too stuck in “editing mode” and it cripples my writing. Maybe I’ll get better with more practice!

      • I guess I use the poems as a vent. I never edit or revise or revisit those.
        But the novel? Feels like I am on purpose continuosly playing 1 same chord over and over again while some mythological creature is finishing it’s 5th pack of cigars and being like “About that song…” 😀

  2. Try to remember that there are only so many stories; so many plot twists. As a writer, you can only take something and dress it up in a certain way — much like someone can take AC/DC’s Back in Black, and re-arrange it for bluegrass (no, really), you should be able to take a story and put it in a different context. Look at all the modern re-interpretations of Shakespeare.
    Find the heart of your story — the characters — and find somewhere comfortable to put them. The story is everything. Setting and scenery are only seasonings.

    • You’re starting to sound a lot like my writing conscience. I’m going to have to re-name you Jiminy Cricket if you’re not careful.

      I like “setting and scenery are only seasonings”– if you made that an apron, I would totally buy it.

      Thanks for the input! I can always count on some good discourse from you.

      • I swear the alliteration was absolutely accidental, mi amour.
        And of course discourse is toujours a la course.
        If you came for dinner I’d offer you a mult-course mean and the promise of delightful intercourse — conversation, that is; don’t be coarse.

  3. I try to avoid writing about things I don’t know. I’m so lazy a quick look on Wikipedia is as far as I’m willing to go, and that’s almost too much trouble!
    As for London, I haven’t been for a few years either – I hate big cities – but I don’t think it would be that different to New York (having only seen New York life on TV). The cultures are pretty similar I think. Ordinary people rushing around shopping, working and going to Starbucks.
    The biggest killer is to get the language right. I read many American books with “English” characters and I’ve seen everything from “more posh that is possible” to “far too Oliver Twist”. Not “sidewalk”, “pavement”, Not “elevator”, “lift” and so on.
    I can help with the language and slang if you like (if you do set it in London), but I think Helena is right – concentrate on the characters and story and set it somewhere comfortable to you.

    • The language is definitely a challenge–I had the good fortune of having a professor from the UK in my workshop, so she was helpful with things like pavement instead of sidewalk and some of the dialogue. I guess the problem is to decided whether I write it set in London and don’t worry about the language or whether I should still try to stay true to the original idea.
      The problem with concentrating on the characters is that they were conceived as British and changing that is going to completely change them–their names, their personalities, everything. That’s the main frustration at this point.

  4. I, too, have to agree with Helena on this one — the story’s the thing. And don’t be afraid to make a sloppy mess — get out of editing mode while you’re writing. Just try to write and get through it. Make mistakes along the way. Sometimes mistakes become happy accidents. I like to make chili, and I don’t tweak ANYTHING until the morning after. It’s good to just put everything together, let it settle, and then taste it to see what needs tweaking. But what do I know? I haven’t written anything in months — I just came on to accept an award!

    • Can you not talk about food? I’m starving. Maybe if I eat some of your chili I’ll be able to get out of my own head…otherwise I’m just going to have to take Hemingway’s advice… Congratulations on the award!

  5. I have lived in London for a while… Sometimes I like writing about places I know but I also like writing stories set in different time periods. Have you tried writing a story set in France ( this is my country of birth)?
    Best of luck anyway and I really enjoy your stories!

    • I feel like people often forget the time periods when they say “write what you know”–although there is always extensive research! I haven’t written a story set in France that I can think of at the moment…I would love to, though!

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