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!