Thursday, September 25, 2008

Virtual traveling, or writing

Lucky Rick! I love Paris, and I just know he's going to have a great time. And it's the perfect time of year to go, too.

Rick got my wheels turning on an intriguing idea. I live in Honolulu, and Hawaii is a fairly popular site for novels. Like anyplace else (Paris, London, Chicago, Akron, Ottawa, fill in the blank), Hawaii has its idiosyncrasies, and most of them are little tidbits that one wouldn’t know unless one lived here—or used to live here, and long enough to get a good feel for the lay of the land, the rhythms of the language, and the cultural variations.

So I’m wondering—can an author pen a book where the protagonist lives in a place that the author doesn’t know extremely well? The writer could have the protagonist visit, no problem, because the writer can attribute lack of knowledge to the character. I’ve heard other writers discuss this—Sue Henry, who places most of her stories in her home state, Alaska, comes to mind. Sue did a delightful book set on the Big Island, but her character was visiting from Alaska. I found the story highly entertaining and didn’t see any blunders. I also heard Sue say that she didn’t believe someone could write about a contemporary place (historical novels are another situation all together) without living there.

I remember a library friend telling me about a mystery set in Hawaii where the death occurred when a palm tree fell on a person. We both scoffed--a coconut maybe, but not a palm tree. And how to get those coconuts, at least thirty feet up a stalk, to fall at the right time? The librarian didn’t finish the book. A good friend and excellent writer once had a scene at a Hawaii high school graduation where the students threw their caps into the air. But the students at that high school wear holoku (a muu muu-like dress) and navy jackets at graduation instead of caps and gowns. Not a big mistake, but one that a local author wouldn't make.

How does one know this stuff—the things that make a story ring with authenticity—unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the location? I’m not sure you do. Even the Internet can’t tell you the things you don’t know to ask. Heck, I’ve written streets wrong and had someone make a left instead of a right at the wrong place—and that’s on the streets I drive almost every day. So what do the rest of you think? Aside from the fact that I have a faulty sense of direction, that is.

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