by Christina Lay
Perhaps you’ve found yourself wanting or needing to write about a place you’ve never been, but you feel confident you can pull it off because you’ve read so many books about the place, watched so many movies, and done so much research when you should’ve been writing that you feel like you’ve been there, that you know it through and through.
This happened to me a while back. I decided to finally write that steam punk fantasy mystery that’s been swirling in my mind for years. I had the story completely figured out. I set pen to paper (or actually, fingers to keyboard) and…wrote about a page. I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge, the words, or the grounding that I needed to continue. You see, this story began in London. I’ve never been to London, but I truly felt that I knew it so well I could have my characters walk the streets and the descriptions would come to mind as I went. After all, it’s one of those places that permeate popular culture. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens , even Paddington Bear. I’ve probably read hundreds of books set in London and its environs, and watched even more movies. The images are there, but the grounding details are not.
As I sit here and think the word “London”, innumerable scenes scroll through my head; all supplied by other people’s fiction and news reports. Yes, I can do copious amounts of research and fill in all those missing words and street names, but nothing can replace actually walking the streets, smelling the diesel fumes, turning a corner and stumbling across that unexpected something that unlocks the key to your next scene.
I’m writing about this now because I’ve recently had the experience of finally setting foot in another of those iconic places: New York City. If there is anywhere in the world more entrenched in my imagination than London, it’s probably New York, and this mostly from television. Isn’t every other TV show set there? Isn’t every other comedian born there? We studied it in school, starting with pictures of Dutch guys buying Manhattan from the Native Americans for a handful of beads and culminating with a barrage of vivid images from 9/11. Hardly a day goes by without some image being beamed at me from Times Square or Wall Street or Madison Avenue. I had definite and firm images planted in my brain, and not only images, but expectations and emotional responses. I knew NYC would be exciting to visit, and full of interesting things, but I also had a pre-loaded set of expectations fueled mainly by 70s era TV. You know, Starsky & Hutch, Barretta, that sort of gritty crime show. Cold, hard, dirty, scary, unfriendly. Vast blocks of rundown slums. Shady characters menacing people in Central Park and on subway cars.
What I did not expect was the vast amount of historical buildings in fine shape, the beauty of the skyline, the European elegance, and the friendliness of most of the people. And a rather disappointing lack of shady characters.
I’m not here to do a travelogue for Manhattan. What became important to me is how vastly my internal NYC landscape has changed. It has morphed from a frightening, sprawling Metropolis to an endlessly intriguing patchwork of neighborhoods where real people live and work. And the big picture is now peppered with small details, little glimpses into daily life. True, ten days as a tourist does not an expert make, but I can now confidently have a character walk through Central Park without relying wholly on outdated scenery supplied by someone else’s artistic eye.
I thought a lot about the TV show Seinfeld while I was there. So much reminded me of that show, of what I expected to see, and I was happy to see it, but I was even happier to see the unexpected.
The Highline is a great example; this is an elevated train track that has been converted into a raised park, a pedestrian skyway full of vegetation, art installations, fascinating backstreet views and yes, tourists. I’d read about it, but walking it let me peek not only into the “backyard” of the meat packing district, but it gave me a glimpse into the heart of the people who live there. It’s an amazing civic project, one that says a lot about the city that grew it. And what it says is nothing I ever would have expected.
I can talk about the sensory overload of being in a place, but you know that already: how valuable it is to stand on the corner and smell, touch, listen, and taste the environment. To meet real people instead of observe characters, to walk through Central Park at night and be only a little bit nervous.
Displacing a landscape crafted over decades is a touch trickier, and truly a fascinating experiment in rewiring one’s brain. Even now, I can feel the reality slipping back beneath the layers of fantasy that I, as a compulsive storyteller, can’t help but weave. But now, at least, my fantasy is grounded in reality. There are many places you can’t go; ancient Babylon being one, The third moon of Saturn another. But if you can go, and if you want a place to play a major role in a writing project, there’s no substitute for being there. Only your own experience can displace the imaginary world in your head, and then seed it,feed it and regrow it into a more authentic fantasy when you return.