I recently watched a British sci-fi movie about aliens attacking a rough, inner city housing estate in London. The reviews had all been positive and my expectations were high. Suffice to say, the movie did not live up to these expectations. A year or two ago, I may still have enjoyed watching it, but since I started to view all art through writer's eyes, I was horrified by just how blatantly misjudged the movie was. If it had been about aliens invading middle class suburbia or perhaps even a university campus, I may have thought differently. You see, the problem was that the writer (you can figure out who, but I do not like to disrespect others) was clearly not from a rough inner city background. As a result, I found a lot of the characters (all in fact) to be unrealistic, patronising and worst of all; completely unsympathetic. This movie had broken the cardinal rule: WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW!
Surely, all rules are made to be broken I hear you say. After all, J K Rowling is not really a wizard (as far as I know) and neither has George Lucas ever visited a galaxy far, far away. The point is that they still stuck to territory that they were familiar with. JK Rowling set the Potter books in a school and Star Wars is actually an old fashioned fairy tale about a knight rescuing a princess. Besides which, Star Wars was not Lucas's first film. His debut, American Graffiti, had a small scope to it and drew on a lot of aspects of Lucas's own youth.
Writing, like anything, takes practice to get good. A debut novel is when a writer learns the tools of his trade and it is important that the story being told is as familiar as possible, as the process of writing is not. For that first novel, you have to keep it familiar and to some extent; small. Take Alex Garland with his outstanding first novel, The Beach. He drew on his own experiences of backpacking in Asia and used an isolated, enclosed area for the setting. Another favourite author of mine; Stephen Fry did the same with his debut; The Liar. This novel was set within the again, enclosed walls of the public school/university system. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but even the most imaginative writers know that for that first book, you have to keep it simple.
When I tell people that my first novel is set in Australia, they instantly become sceptical and rightly so. I am English and they wonder if I know enough about my subject matter. The thing is, I actually have stuck to what I know. I spent 2 years working and living in Australia and for 6 months of that time I was labouring on outback farms. I picked potatoes in the Riverland. I pruned grapevines in Western Australia and like the characters in the book; I picked sticks in Queensland. The people and places in the novel may not be real, but I know them all very well nonetheless. I could have chosen to set the novel in America and relied on wikipedia for fact checking, but I think that readers are more intelligent than that. They know the difference between what is fiction and what is ultimately, just lies.
left - picking grapes in south oz