I’ve recently been reading Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas which, for those who haven’t come across it, is a book about writing fiction and how stories work and it’s basically brilliant. I really enjoyed it and I think I learned a lot. (Now to buy my own copy and highlight it and scribble all over it and stick post-it notes in it…)
One of the things she gets a reader to do is to fill in a matrix which includes things like “Problems You Have Faced” and “Places You Know Well” and “Special Skills/ Knowledge You Have” with the intention of putting them together to come up with novel ideas. And it’s great, up to a point. I mean, if you fill it in honestly (one column is Things You Worry About), it might be something you keep very private. I know mine is.
But when it came to places I know well, I was stuck.
For this particular column we were given four boxes to fill in. Immediately I started thinking, “Places I know well? What does that mean? Places I could write about? And is this, like, towns, or is it particular locations like a school or a dance studio?”
From looking at the examples provided by Scarlett Thomas, I assumed we were talking towns. Okay. So we’re looking at towns or villages or cities that I know well enough to write about. And that’s where I ran into problems.
I’ve always lived in the same place. Well, we moved here a couple of weeks before my first birthday, so I guess I have lived in two places, but I don’t remember the other one at all. Therefore, I’ve spent just over sixteen years of my life living in the same suburb of London, in the same house, taking the same buses and walking the same routes. I know the area around where I live, too. I know where we used to go to the library and I know the main shopping centre nearby because the big library is there and because my orchestra used to be down the road; I know the highstreet on the other side of my school because I used to take the bus through it to get to my violin lesson a little way away…
But I basically only know one town or area of towns well enough to write about them.
So, I had one box filled in. Where else did I know? Well, there was Barcombe, where my grandparents lived. I went on enough walks that I could describe the countryside nearby fairly accurately, and it’s not a big place so there’s not much of it I haven’t seen. But I don’t live there. I don’t know how it works on a day to day basis; I don’t know what the people are like or what their opinions are on social issues or what it would actually be like to grow up there.
Nevertheless, I could describe it, and make it sound like I knew what I was talking about, so I put that in the second box.
Two boxes to go. And I was stumped. See, I’ve been to Central London plenty of times, but am I any different from a ‘regular’ tourist? (If there’s any such thing.) The routes I take are usually fairly direct from the train station to the theatre, or to Foyles, or to Central School of Ballet, or to Camden Market, or to the English Folk Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House (all of these are examples of places I’ve been more than once, some more than others).
I wouldn’t say I know London well. I don’t know what it’s like to live or work there. I live right on the edge of SE London, you know. It’s practically Kent.
London was out. Where else did I know well? I wouldn’t say Oxford. I’ve been there a couple of times because my uncle lives there, but not enough to be able to navigate it even a little bit. And I went to Durham three times. I don’t think that counts. I got pretty good at getting around Edinburgh when I was there for the festival, but I still needed a map, and it doesn’t look anything like that during the rest of the year, I imagine.
I mean, there isn’t anywhere else I know well enough to make it sound like I know what I’m doing without extensive research.
And I think I’m at a disadvantage. Yes, I can write books set places I’ve never been. I can write them set in other worlds, for a start! I wrote a book set at Aberdeen University for the most part, and ended up asking them questions on Twitter and reading their entire prospectus and watching their virtual tour, and then using my knowledge of students elsewhere to cobble together a vaguely convincing picture–and even then I knew it was probably inaccurate. (But I’m going to Aberdeen this Easter, so I’ll be taking plenty of video to use as reference.) That isn’t the same as living there.
My stay-in-one-place nature is a massive contrast to other young writers who have maybe lived a more exciting life and seen more places. Charley, for a start, has lived all over the world.
I think I’m going to have to leave those boxes in the matrix blank. But the next time I go somewhere for any length of time, I will examine it. I will take photos. I will take notes. I will observe people and how they behave. I will film routes that characters would maybe need to take, so that I know how to describe them. I will do my best to learn how to ‘know a place well’ in a day or a week rather than in years.
Because that’s what writers need to do, really, isn’t it? Anyone can look, but what we need to do is see.