One of my most enduring beliefs about being a writer is that you should always be researching. Of course, the sort of research you need is completely dependent on the type of story you’re constructing, but outside of closely examining human behavior, my favorite research involves travel.
Writers don’t have to love far flung destinations, or writing about them, but for those that do we frequently turn all those “vacations” into “research opportunities” for our novels.
And right now, it’s summer. A time for sun, less restrictive footwear, and for many, trips out of town. I have always loved to travel. Maybe it was growing up in a military family that shifted around so often, or the years I spent in my early twenties roaming the globe working for an international airline, whatever the root cause, my bags are always at hand and easy to pack on a moments notice. Even as I write this, I am tripping through London, Paris, and Rome for three weeks with my family. “Vacationing” yes…but always the writer in me is searching for and noticing the specifics. Notebook at the ready, I am always eager to jot down those details, scents, sounds, the energy and feel of a location that I might not be able to conjure up in my imagination alone.
I find it’s these specific details that seem to breathe life into our settings and locations, and there is no better way to know about a place than to experience it first hand.
It’s not always possible to get to all those locations we wish to bring to life on the written page. I mean, where exactly does one hop a flight to Mars? Middle Earth? Maybe the Death Star? Even placing all our fantastical settings aside, not all writers have the ability to get to Zambia, Brazil, or even Canada to experience those places first hand to capture all those multisensory details themselves.
I myself have never been to Oaxaca, Mexico, the Ellora Caves in India, or Mount Emei in China; and yet all these locations have provided the backdrop for major events within my novels. As writers, we often have to find a way to get there…without actually getting to go there.
Here are my favorite virtual travel tricks for learning about a place:
- Guide books (preferably the ones with fantastic color photos)
- Travel blogs
- Expat blogs
- Interviews with people I know who have lived in a location I’m writing about
- Local ethnic restaurants (that are praised as being “authentic”)
- Foreign films from the region I’m writing about
- Translated books set in, and written by writers from, that region
- Google street maps (where available) that can take you there on your computer
I tend to set my characters everywhere but here, and I blame my roving, adventurous heart for this. While I’ve had the great good fortune to see much of this world myself, I still depend on all those virtual travel tricks to round a place out and provide me background knowledge that I wouldn’t have necessarily picked up simply being there. But in truth, while these elements give your books and stories foundation of place, it is likely your life, the sights, sounds, aroma, the people weaving in and throughout your everyday world that provide you breadth and depth of material. As writers, we should always have our research hats on, even if we’ve traveled no farther than the distance between our beds and the coffee machine.
Because it really is interesting what strikes you when you simply remember to pay attention to the world—especially the parts that occur only inside your own head.