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But You’ve Never Been There!

December 13th, 2009 40 comments

I like to write about places I’ve never been to.  It’s liberating, and it’s an experience that I recommend to other writers. 

But wait a minute, you ask.  Don’t you have to visit places you write about?  Don’t you have to step on another country’s soil, smell the air, mingle with the inhabitants and interact with their culture in a thousand different ways in order to write about it authentically?  Otherwise, isn’t the process no better than a well-crafted, well-research lie no matter how believable it seems to be?

Well, maybe.

And then again, maybe not.

The fact is, research, imagination and empathy can carry you a long way.  Also, while it’s nice to visit another place, it’s sometimes expensive, time-consuming, and may not always be practical.  One does have to make a living, after all.  Besides that, some countries may not let you in, for political or other reasons.

I teach at a historically black university.  I sometimes ask my students, “I’m an old white guy.  Could I write about life in the hood if I did a lot of research?”

Some of my students say no.  Others say yes.  I say, if I can make it believable to those who know firsthand about life in the hood and pull them completely into my fictional dream, why not?  As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, what’s primarily necessary is to create “that willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith.”

Okay, here’s a couple of examples from my own writing experience.

One day years ago I started to read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, which is about the often destructive influence of English colonialism on Nigeria.  That book, plus its sequel, No Longer at Ease, and other research inspired my longest novel, A Senseless Act of Beauty, which is available at Blade Publishing (http://www.bladepublishing.org/).  A Senseless Act of Beauty focuses on a beautiful African-type of planet that more civilized worlds seek to conquer and exploit in a brutal, oppressive fashion.  History repeats itself, in other words.

One of the stories in the novel, “Eyes of the Leopard,” stems from an idea that I found personally intriguing.  What if a radical, impressionist painter or artist were born into a Nigerian village circa 1900 and fell in love with the chief’s daughter?  Here is the way I began it:

            One day, Ekwefi, the proud daughter of the tribal chief, decided she wanted to be especially beautiful for the Feast of the New Yam.  She thought and thought, and then she smiled.  Perhaps Amadi, the odd boy who drew such strange pictures, could help her.

            So she told her doting father, and a servant went to summon the boy.  Now the name of Amadi’s father is not important, for he was an efulefu, a lazy, worthless man who neglected his crops and preferred to drink palm wine and fashion flutes from bamboo stems.  Of all the huts in the Nigerian village, his was the meanest and poorest kept.  Indeed, it was considered a disgrace by others even to visit it.  So when the servant, a tall man of aristocratic bearing and many airs, announced himself and entered the cramped hut, he looked about in distaste, his nose crinkling at the dust and odors. 

I hope I’ve captured the flavor of such a place and time, and discouraged the reader from wondering how a Jewish boy from Ohio could write such a thing.  The tribal story-telling style (e.g., “Now the name of Amadi’s father is not important”), and the local dialect (efulefu) contribute, I trust, to the local color and verisimilitude of the story. 

Here’s one more example: several years back, I became fascinated by Nauru, an island in the southwestern Pacific.  Again, research was key, as well as imagination.  I wrote and published three stories that take place in that area, and last week, one of those stories, “Bagonoun’s Wonderful Songbird,” was republished by Gypsy Shadow Publishing (http://www.gypsyshadow.com/).  The improbable love story involves a fifteen-year-old girl and a man who is nearly seventy.  Emet wakes Bagonoun up and asks him to tell her a story.  Annoyed, Bagonoun finally has an inspiration, one involving local lore and tribal astronomy.

            Ah, he remembered!  “Once there was a young girl,” he said, “who lived in the sky.  She—” 

            “What was her name?  You must say it!”                   

             Bagonoun made a face.  “Eyount.”

             “Pretty!”  She made a pleased sound and moved closer so her arm grazed his.

             “Anyway,” he went on, “Eyount’s parents decided to gather together some young boys so their daughter might choose a husband.  And when they came, there were many.  They all stood in a row so she could see them.  Being young, they were mischievous and liked to play games, especially the one in which they switched magic headbands made of stardust.  When they did this, they switched faces and bodies as well and tricked their friends into thinking each was the other.  Now two of these boys decided to play a prank on her.  One of them was named Demagomogom and the other . . . ”

So that’s how I write about places I’ve never been: I do research, use my imagination, and try to feel sympathy and even empathy for my characters, try to see the world through their eyes.  Granted, being born in a place or visiting it is better, but being creative and willing to take chances can accomplish miracles.  Fellow scribblers, I urge you to take chances and to be willing to fail.  Don’t reject that fictional idea just because it occurs in a place you’ve never been.  Go there in your imagination and make it real to your readers.

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