When it comes to fiction, I can’t write about a place until I leave it. Over the years, I found that I needed a certain distance – sometimes psychic, sometimes literal – from my subject and the setting in which the story takes place. I’m a big fan of what some writers like to call composting, in which a writer will let long periods of time pass before addressing an experience, place, or memory in their work. Like a real compost pile, much of what happens during this process is invisible to the eye. Memories decay and degrade, but ultimately they provide the nutrients needed by the author’s imaginative powers.
Quite the opposite for many writers, who like to strike the hot iron, when their sensory details are at their most vivid and demanding. They can write about a place from the moment they inhabit it, capturing its essence and inserting it into their fiction. If I sound jealous of this process, it’s because I am. My memory isn’t the best, and while composting produces layered and textured fiction, it can be a slow and torturous process.
Knowing this, one would assume that I am a meticulous note-taker or recorder. After all, what could be more important to a writer trying to capture the essence of a place than first-hand observations and notes? When I first traveled abroad, with vague aspirations as a writer, I was. Everywhere I went – London, Heidelberg, Salamanca – I took a little black notebook and a pen with me, usually one of those Pilot Precise V5 pens which look very cool but are quite impractical as they have tendency to bleed everywhere.
Whenever I noticed something: the feel of the cobblestones under my feet, the smell of ground coffee beans, some slanting late afternoon light against a building, I noted it down. Being the burgeoning and conscientious writer that I was, I wanted to have a good sense of place in case I ever wanted to put a story there. I was afraid that if I didn’t write things down, write them on the page, I’d forget them, or worse, I might misremember something.
Memories decay and degrade, but ultimately they provide the nutrients needed by the author’s imaginative powers.
A funny thing happened when I looked at these notebooks years later. I was working on a short story set in Spain, and I was excited at the prospect of combing through all the various observations and anecdotes I had written during my time there. Much to my regret, however, almost nothing I wrote made sense to me. The anecdotes were absurd; I couldn’t remember the context. The descriptions I had written seemed simple and forgettable. I couldn’t trust my meticulous notes after all. Instead, I was forced to remember and imagine.
After this disheartening experience, I stopped writing all things together, even when something struck me as creatively interesting. If I needed to remember something for a story – an ocean view, the taste of a particular dish – I had planned to rely solely on my memory, flawed as it was, and on my imagination. I knew I was going to be wrong about some things, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that when writing fiction for the first time, sometimes it’s better to allow yourself to make mistakes. It’s easy to fall into the research trap, checking the veracity of nearly every detail of a novel with a quick Google search, but for me at least, that accuracy leaves no room for a story.
When I sat down to write what was to become my first novel, When we parted ways, I hadn’t set foot in Seoul, South Korea, where the novel is set, for almost five years. I had first moved to Seoul after graduating from college during the Great Recession. With few job prospects, I took a job teaching English as a second language. At the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to write a novel set in South Korea. I was busy applying for MFA programs for the next year and mostly focused on writing short stories.
So, five years later, when it became clear that Seoul would serve as the setting for When we parted ways, I knew I had my work cut out. To make matters worse, it would end up taking me about seven years to complete the novel, so by the time I submitted the final draft to my editors for approval, it had been over a decade since I had lived in Seoul.
Working on the first drafts of the novel, I allowed myself to be wrong. Street names, building facades, bus routes, and neighborhood aesthetics – I described them all as I remembered, resisting the urge to look through old photos or do a search for pictures on google. During those early years, I was much more interested in capturing the vibe of a nightclub, the vibe of a neighborhood, or the smell of a crowded subway car during rush hour. These frame qualities are much more subjective and abstract; they also cannot be googled.
Novels are not instruction manuals or travel guides; they are a portal through which to see the world, and they work best when they play on our senses. Vivid sensory details – rain blowing in the wind, a river at dawn, the smell of freshly steamed rice, the whine of a motorbike weaving through traffic – are what give readers access to the rich, layered fictional setting of a novel.
As I worked on draft after draft, I always told myself that if the novel ever got published – which seemed pretty unlikely most of the time I was writing it – I would go back to Seoul to make sure the setting looked like the city that I had evoked in my head. As much as I enjoyed imagining my characters walking around the city, I owed it to my readers to make sure I captured the setting as accurately as possible. I didn’t want any minor errors or incongruences dragging my readers out of the fictional dream. If any of them knew Seoul, my setting and descriptions had to feel like an accurate rendition of the city. This trip would be to make sure I understood the subway stops, city blocks, and architectural details. When I learned that my novel was indeed going to be published, I immediately started booking my trip. Then the pandemic hit.
Novels are not instruction manuals or travel guides; they are a portal through which to see the world, and they work best when they play on our senses.
My plans to travel to Seoul fizzled out and with the pandemic showing no signs of abating, I did what any writer, desperate to corroborate and authenticate their own fictional account of a city would do: I turned to Google Maps. From the start, I combed through my novel for the moments that needed more diligent research. My characters move a lot. They take the metro and the buses; they cross long blocks. And I did the same thing, from my laptop.
I clicked those cumbersome white squares, moving forward and backward, sometimes smoothly, sometimes jerkily, depending on my internet connection. Using “street view”, I was able to walk the same streets as my characters, visit the same temples and palaces, and shop in the same high-end shopping districts. Where Google Maps proved most helpful was in the details. Was this metro station above ground or underground? Was the facade of this bar really made of wood or had I misunderstood? Could my characters actually see Seoul Tower from where they were sitting? This way, I took my trip to Seoul and saw the city as my characters would have. I wandered around Namdaemun and Myeongdong markets, scanning the stalls where my characters shopped. I walked through the tree-lined neighborhoods on the border of Bukhansan National Park, remembering when I had hiked there many years ago.
When searching Google Maps for “street view”, I was always surprised at how much I recalled certain parts of Seoul in my novel. Even though I hadn’t been there in over a decade, the setting somehow stuck in my consciousness. During my virtual walks around the city, I was also struck by how much Seoul had changed. There were office buildings and stores that I didn’t recognize, housing estates that seemed to spring from nothing. I don’t know if these changes were actually changes, or if I had simply forgotten or misunderstood the city as it had always been.
To complicate matters, there was no way for me to timestamp the images I was looking at. Were these images representative of the city now? Or did this version of Seoul exist somewhere between when I lived there twelve years ago and now? This is definitely a question that cannot be answered on Google. I’ll have to go to Seoul to get that answer.
As I continued to seriously work on my second novel, I spent a lot of time wondering if I should change my approach and my creative process. I sometimes wonder if I’d be a faster writer if I could write in the moment, if I didn’t have to leave a place to capture it on the page, if I could just visit a place and take notes. Then again, I suspect I’m going to continue doing what I’ve always done because when you slip into that deep imaginative space where you fully inhabit your characters, see what they see, feel what they feel, well, there’s no better time for a writer.
Soon Wiley’s Novel When we parted ways is available now through Dutton.