Following on from my last post about setting, I was wondering, how much detail is too much detail? When I say detail, I mean ‘stolen-from-reality’ detail as in shop names as opposed to invented detail. I’m also talking about writing as opposed to reading when do you stop taking from true life and giving with your imagination? If a school is part of your story, should you invent it in your area, or should you describe one of the schools that already exists there? But then if you do this, and you need a scene that includes a maths teacher, how can you make sure it’s crystal clear that the maths teacher in your story is completely invented and not based on an actual maths teacher that teaches there (it’s harder when you’re actually still in the school, you notice their mannerisms creeping into your characters!)? You don’t want to make the gap between reality and imagination so obvious that everyone reading goes, “hold on, I believed it up until there, but what the hell?”, but instead make sure people don’t bring you to court for writing about them, because it’s clear they aren’t in your story.
This also applies to local events that take place… should you actually name bands that placed at a big concert, or should you throw in a few random bands, or should you completely invent them? Someone just get elected president, and you need them for your story: should you use their name or invent it? For me, as a reader, I know it would sort of ruin the realism of a story if the author put Philip J Keohane (just a random name, first I thought of) as the president of Ireland in a story set in the present or past.
Also, as a reader, I love the warm, “Oh! I know this place!” feeling you get when you recognise a setting in a book (the whole way through Jasper Winn’s Paddle, I was fuzzy feeling from knowing it all, even though it doesn’t really count in this discussion as it wasn’t fiction).
The whole, “write what you know” mantra comes to mind: if you plan on really saturating your story in the setting, you’re probably off really knowing that setting well first. Though it is a little limiting, it opens up the necessity to travel to research you book – a good excuse! Honestly though, I know how annoying it is to have someone write about a place you know well when it’s obvious they don’t know what it’s really like: the number of books that are set in Ireland that are written from what tourists experience without any notion of what life here is really like isn’t even funny. I mean, half the world now believes we still all whitewash our houses.
So, what’s your opinion on the depth of local detail you can include in your story?