NaNoWriMo novel ... first draft finished! 58,264 words, a number that's sure to grow between now and the final draft. Hope everyone had a fun month of writing!
There's an old saying in the writing biz: Write what you know.
If taken literally, it's a dumb saying.
How well did Baum know flying monkeys? When was the last time Clarke set foot inside a giant alien spaceship? How much time did I spend in a girl's summer camp?
Just to be clear, I did not spend any time in a girl's summer camp, except when it was empty during the off season. And yet I still set my novel The No-Campfire Girls inside a girl's summer camp. And by the way, my main character was a teenage girl, and I have no experience being one of those, either.
So "write what you know" has only limited usefulness as a rule, although like many rules there's a germ of truth in it. Certainly an author should research their subject as much as possible. I can take liberties when creating my spaceship, the hapless corvette Beowulf. Similarly, Baum wasn't worried about anyone complaining, "That's not like any Tin Woodman I ever met!" But if you have a character put a silencer on a revolver, you're going to hear about it.
The same goes for setting. If you set your book in New York City, you'd better darned well know which street will get you to the George Washington Bridge. If you create your own fantasy land (and haven't we all done that), you'd better understand why your main city gate faces westward, and which bridges you're likely to find trolls under. Or, you could combine the two and make a trollgate.
I've taken the easy way out up until now. My first two novels and their accompanying short story collection were set in Noble County, Indiana, a place I'm pretty familiar with--having lived there all my life. My fourth book in that series was The No-Campfire Girls and also set in Indiana, although the southern part of the state. While I have little experience with summer camps, I toured my wife's Girl Scout camp, and based the layout of my Camp Inipi on it.
Finally I set a novel outside Indiana--but Radio Red takes place in the area of northwest lower Michigan where I used to vacation frequently, and I was pretty familiar with it. Real places have that advantage, that you can steal locales. There are also disadvantages: In The Notorious Ian Grant, my characters visited a flower shop in Albion, Indiana, in a building where I used to live. That's fine, but the flower shop later moved out.
So there you have the pros and cons of real and fake settings. When I started planning my NaNoWriMo novel I was going to again set it in Indiana, but at the last moment I decided to mix it up a bit: Fire on Mist Creek (On? At? On.) is set in northern Kentucky. It's not far over the Indiana state line, but I'm still dipping a toe into another area.
My town, Mist Creek, is made up, and based to an extent on the towns near where my grandparents lived when I was a kid. But that was southeastern Kentucky, in a mountainous region--well, mountainous to a Hoosier. For the new book, I pictured the other side of the Ohio River from the Madison, Indiana area, which is not nearly as up and down. My wife and I have also kicked around setting it closer to Paducah, also a Kentucky region ... but if you cross the Ohio there you're in Illinois.
I think south from Madison gives me a terrain more accurate to what I'm envisioning: hilly, rugged in places, a rural character where small towns have a certain amount of isolation. You people down there in places like Bedford, LaGrange, and Pendleton, let me know if I'm wrong!