Monday, 1 April 2013

Guest post - Sally Quilford

I suspect to most of you, Sally Quilford needs no introduction. Her blog is probably the one I've linked to most from here. She and I have been friends for 10 years now, and she has never ceased to amaze me with her writing output and endless enthusiasm for each new project. Her latest ebook, Lonesome Ranger, is to be published tomorrow. It's set in the Wild West of the 19th century, so I asked Sally for tips on how to write a story set somewhere the author has never visited. 

Travels of the Mind 

My new ebook, Lonesome Ranger is out on 2nd April, and is/will be published under the brand new Pulse imprint. Lonesome Ranger is a western romance (previously published as Sunlit Secrets by My Weekly Pocket Novels and Ulverscroft), and my lovely friend Womag has invited me to her blog to discuss writing about a place I have never been.

Obviously I’ve never been to 19th Century America, but I’ve never been to modern America either. It’s on my bucket list, but I need a bucketful of money before I can go.

Lonesome Ranger is my second foray into the Old West. I began my imaginary travels out west with Bella’s Vineyard. I had a hankering to write a western romance, but I wasn’t interested in ranches and cattle. I wanted a pretty setting for my heroine. I remembered the old 80s series, Falcon Crest being about vineyards and decided that would be the perfect setting, but not in the 80s. I wanted to go back to the 19th Century. I googled vineyards in America and found out that the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was chock full of vineyards and had been since about the 1850s. So I searched some images to give me an idea of the landscape. I also researched the history of winegrowing in America, and turned up some interesting facts about Chinese winegrowers who were pushed out for the Europeans who came along. These facts are represented in my character, Shen.

When I mentioned all this in my (tongue-in-cheek) Cheats Guide to Writing Western Romances I followed a link back to a site where some Americans were mocking me for my ‘alpine grapes’. I was only a bit smug as I pointed them towards the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association…

As for the rest, the town of Milton came from a list of English towns, on the basis that many American townships are named after the European places where many of the immigrants originated. After that, I just used my imagination. I’d seen enough westerns in my time, so I knew what a generic western town would look like, with the hotel, the cathouse, the blacksmith and the church. Then there would be barn raisings and local celebrations of somesort. The women would wear gingham or pretty silk dresses, and the men would be dressed in leather chaps. And finally I added the big bad guy who wanted to control the town through its
water supply.

I figured that whilst they may be clichés, they would be clichés that the reader would automatically recognise so they could create a picture of the town in their mind. As I was writing a western romance, I didn’t really need the same gritty realism as films like The Forgiven. I was allowed to romanticise the setting.

Moving forward a year or so, I decided I wanted to write another western romance. Once again I looked around for a pretty setting, and that finally came from my template for the hero. In Lonesome Ranger, the hero is inspired by drop dead gorgeous 80s mini-series king, Peter Strauss. Whilst I was erm… researching … pictures of him, I found out that he now owns a citrus farm in a place called Ojai in California. Ojai is particularly famous for its pink sunsets. How could I resist?! So Ojai became Ocasa (which is Spanish for sunset), and my English heroine moved to a town where citrus trees dotted the landscape.

Then once again I fell back on the tropes of westerns, and created the town as I wanted it to be – a border town that was just becoming civilised, and with a mixture of American and Mexican residents. I put an old timer on the porch outside the local store, and had a pretty little school, and a bandit terrorising the area, a la Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven.

These were all things that the reader would recognise as being part of a western landscape, so it saved me a lot of time having to find out everything about growing oranges and lemons or even exactly what elements a town like Ocasa might have had.

The point is that you don’t have to visit a place to be able to write about it. Of course you have to do some research to get a feel for the place or the time you’re writing about, but you don’t always have to write what you know. You can write about what you’ve found out. And after that, you use your imagination, and maybe take shortcuts that people will recognise, such as the old timer on the porch, or the stagecoach bringing the hero or heroine into town.

If your story has a modern setting, Google Earth is a fantastic way to see the streets you wish to write about. You can research the rest online too, so you know roughly what size a town or city might be, and what its history is. In the end, all anyone wants is a story. There may be the odd person who is a real expert who says ‘that’s not right’ but the average reader is only interested in the story you’re telling.

As long as you get some things right, and you don’t make any glaring mistakes like putting the Eiffel Tower in Moscow, then you don’t have to worry about the stuff you make up.

Thanks Sally! So it isn't just 'write what you know', but 'write what you can research'. Some great tips there for all of us. I will add a link to the book as soon as it is published tomorrow. 
Edited 3/4/13 - Here's the link! 


Wendy's Writing said...

This is a great post. How did we manage before the internet? Usually I base stories around places I have been to but recently I set part of a story in an area of Spain I'd never been to and reasearched it all online. It must have been okay as I sold it!

Sally Quilford said...

Well done, Wendy! I think that if you get most of it right, you can get away with it. And I also think that if the story is good enough, readers won't notice if you get a few things wrong.

Sally Quilford said...

Forgot to add that my other western romance, Bella's Vineyard (as mentioned in this post) is free to download from Amazon today.

Paula Martin said...

Google Earth (and streetview) is a fantastic resource for writing about places you don't know - and also as a reminder of places you do know.

Kate said...

I love reading about the background processes of writing. Interesting post, Sally.

Maria Perry Mohan said...

Hi Sally, Hi Womag, what an inspiring post. You're giving me all sorts of inspirational ideas. Love the details.

Penny said...

Nice post :-) thanks! Sometimes it's just great fun to write what you'd *like* to know!

Sue said...

Great post, Sally - many thanks!

I've also found YouTube to be an invaluable source of information about places. How on earth did we manage back in the Dark Ages before the electric interweb thingy?

Linda King said...

Great post :-) I've written a story set in Andalucía, after some research, and it's now so real to me I feel as if I've been there! Great way to travel!

antoniabloomwriting said...

Good post, Sally!

If you research well, you are in fact writing about what you know! :-)

Sally Quilford said...

Thanks for commenting everyone. I think that in the end, stories are about people, not places. A good setting is important, but it's the characters who really matter.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fascinating post, Sally - and it shows the power of the imagination, the images we retain from film and TV, and the very useful Internet! But, as you say, the story is the most important element anyway (and characters).

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Wendy R said...

Such a great post. Writing novels presupposes writing ability but also requires inspired research, sometimes using unconventional sources such as maps, music and contemporaneous fiction.But also - as Sally shows here - most of all writing novels needs a big and active imagination. I need all these with my new novel set in 381 AD imagining an unrecorded world. #
Am enjoying this website. W

Sally Quilford said...

I haven't written about anything that far back yet, Wendy (note I say 'yet'), but it sounds fascinating!