Earlier this week, I asked how well you can describe a place you’ve never been to. In the comments, most people believed writers can describe real-life locations pretty well as long as their research is good enough.
In general, I think that’s probably right. But it doesn’t all come down to research. It’s also a matter of imagination – especially having the creativity to know which questions you need to ask about a location – and confidence.
A week ago I was in Bosnia doing research for the novel I’m writing. Being able to visit my setting in person was a joy and a treat. I know I’m lucky to be able to travel, and it’s a luxury not everyone has. Nor is it something everyone enjoys.
But whether your story is set in a foreign country or the next town over from where you live, these are some of the reasons it makes sense to visit to visit the place you’re writing about.
1. You don’t trust your imagination to be accurate.
This is me, and I don’t think I’m alone here. The first novel manuscript I wrote was set in my neighborhood. The second was set in a place I remember from childhood. My current one, novel number three, is set in a country I’ve never been to.
That made me nervous, so I booked flights.
I had written 14 chapters before going to Bosnia, and I’d done as much research as I could to write them, but there were still details I needed to know that I couldn’t find on Google. If I couldn’t find the answer through research, I would’ve had to make something up (not a good plan) or change parts of my story so the missing information wouldn’t be necessary anymore.
You also need to trust your imagination to come up with the right questions to help you conduct research.
For example, I knew about Bosnian cuisine, but I hadn’t researched what the inside of a restaurant looks like. It never would’ve occurred to me that some restaurants in Sarajevo’s old center have a sink in the middle of a dining room wall so diners – especially religious diners – can wash their hands before eating. Is this a detail I’ll include in my novel? Not sure yet, but it certainly would make the setting more distinct and is something my American and British characters would notice.
2. Your setting hasn’t been written about much so you struggle to find answers to your questions.
Bosnia has definitely been written about a lot, but most books and websites I found focus on the war in the 1990s. Or on life under Tito. Or its role in the First World War.
My story is set now. Quite a bit of information about Bosnia today is written in Bosnian, a language I don’t speak.
Your setting might be in a sparsely populated state that rarely makes the news. Or you might be writing about a part of town that no one has uploaded a YouTube video showing. If you’re struggling to find the information you need, this is a good excuse to go find it in person.
3. You don’t have a local you can depend on.
First-hand accounts are so important. Real people can give you details you would otherwise spend days hunting down online. But if a significant amount of your story is set in a place you’ve never been, you need to be realistic – you’re probably going to ask someone a heck of a lot of questions.
Fortunately, I don’t have this problem with the story I’m working on now. One of my good friends is Croatian and her husband is Bosnian. They’ve been incredibly generous with their time. But having a knowledgeable friend brings up another issue…
4. You don’t want to be hamstrung by your local friend’s imagination or attention to detail.
Whenever we describe a location we know well, we’re likely to leave details out because we either don’t notice them (they’re so normal to us) or we don’t realize they’re important.
Case in point: when I first moved to London with my husband, we moved into a flat he’d lived in before we met. I asked him what the area was like at night, and his answer focused on whether I should feel safe walking home after dark. Clearly he knew that was the crux of my question, and something he was also concerned about.
Then one night I woke up to a sound like someone was gutting a baby. It was horrific. I threw open the window and grabbed for the phone. My sleepy husband muttered, “It’s just the foxes.”
What the hell? Yes, that night I discovered that London has lots of urban foxes, and female foxes make the most disturbing sound in the world when they fight (as this YouTube video shows, if you fast forward to about 1:18).
But my husband was used to the noise and hadn’t thought to warn me.
5. You want to free-write without worrying about details.
Knowing I would soon be visiting Bosnia, I allowed myself to leave gaps where I wasn’t sure about information – like what my characters would be eating for breakfast. It’s a small detail (and one that might not make it into the final draft), but if I hadn’t been planning a trip I would’ve let myself get bogged down in research instead of continuing to write.
6. You want to be able to picture a scene better so you can find details to help your plot.
Most of the end of my story was a mystery when I left London. Walking along the same streets as my characters helped me see the trouble they’d get themselves into, and hear the conversations they’d have with each other.
7. You want to save time.
Okay, this depends on how far away you have to travel, but you can sometimes discover so much more in a weekend visit than you can in weeks online, especially if you have to trawl though loads and loads of information.
8. You want to see what locals think is important.
Most places I’ve visited in my life have a tourist information center or book store that stocks leaflets or sells books, DVDs, posters, and other sources of information written by local experts.
Yes, you can probably find these books on Amazon, but you have to know they exist first.
9. You live to travel.
This is the point where I admit my bias: I would sacrifice almost anything to be able to travel. I own one pair of shoes that doesn’t have holes – the rest can barely be called shoes anymore. I wear clothes until they almost fall off me. I live in a city I don’t always like very much, but whenever I think about leaving I decide not to because London’s so well connected to places I want to visit. I live like this because I prioritize traveling.
Writing and traveling are my two big passions. Put them together? Heaven.
Can you think of any other reasons to visit a place you’re writing about? Let’s make it an even ten!
A tenth reason might strike me as I type, but I haven’t got one yet. I mostly wanted to say this was a fabulous read! This entry resonates with me since I’d been debating whether or not to visit Florence, Oregon, U.S.A., where my current WIP is set. I’ve probably been there a couple dozen times, but I haven’t necessarily been to each of the places I need to include in the story.
The question was fairly abstract until Wednesday, when I was writing about a very specific location I was unable to find any information on whatsoever. I wrote the scene without a lot of physical detail, but I felt the need then to be able to see through my protag’s eyes. Beside, what could be bad about a summer day on the Oregon coast? I think my son would love it, and he’d also be walking through some of my favorite childhood memories!
So glad you liked this post, Deb! And I totally know what you mean about feeling the need to see the setting through your character’s eyes. Wish I could go to the Oregon coast with you! Take lots of pictures so you can show them to your son when he’s old enough to remember, and you can create some beautiful childhood memories for him as well. 🙂
Another great post. Since I write historicals I don’t have the luxury of seeing many man-made elements in my settings. So I have to rely on research and old maps, then my imagination. However, I’ve been lucky enough to know the climate and terrain of the areas where my books are set. It’s not so much what a mesa or mountain looks like–but more the feeling you get when you stand before it. That’s the important thing, I think. Creating a setting that your characters respond to, then showing it to the readers through their eyes.
That’s exactly it, Kaki. And to me, it’s easier to show that if I’ve experienced similar feelings myself. Of course, imagination fills in a lot of blanks (especially in those experiences I’d never want to have but make my characters suffer), but if it’s at all possible for me to experience their setting then I’ll do it.
I think the 10th reason is that by walking the same paths as your characters do, you open yourself up a little to the possibility that their footsteps may lead you somewhere you weren’t expecting, and perhaps their authentic voice can come through even stronger.
Yes, yes! Beautifully said. Thanks, Sarah!
This is excellent advice.
My honeymoon in New York helped me greatly when writing my novel. Not that it’s hard to find out about New York online, but little things like how the streets smell, what it looks like driving into Manhattan on a hazy day, or how the air and sounds of the city feel at night, all helped me breathe life into my work. These subtle things are really hard to learn about just from reading or looking at photographs. It’s definitely a lot easier when you’re actually walking down the streets, dodging the ticket-sellers or feeling the updraft from the subway grates.
You gave me shivers – I feel like I’m in New York just from reading your comment! Very nicely done. 🙂
I’ve run into the describe location accurately problem with describing hospital settings. I have limited experience being in the hospital, so I’m having problems describing NICU and the ICU.
Confession: I visited my grandmother in the hospital partially so I could describe ICU accurately. It turned out to be the last time I saw her alive, and I really DID want to see her, but . . . just looking around and seeing the ICU room helped improve my novel setting descriptions a lot. It’s a bittersweet memory.
Sounds like a terribly bittersweet memory, lauradroege. I’m so sorry. More than being able to describe the hospital accurately, I’m sure you can sympathize with your characters who are visiting their loved ones. Their pain will be more palpable because you’ve gone through it yourself.