Can you describe a place you’ve never been to?

View from a Dubrovnik bar over the Adriatic
Enjoying a drink at a Dubrovnik bar built into a cliff

I’m back! I hope everyone had a lovely week, whether you celebrated the royal wedding or did your best to avoid it. Thanks to various public holidays and William and Kate’s wedding, last week was a three-day working week in England, so I took it off and went to the Balkans with my husband.

When I first proposed the trip to him, I presented it as a beautiful holiday destination—what could beat Croatian beaches, Dalmatian (coast, not dog) villages, and several days exploring the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

But it didn’t take him long to wrestle the truth from me: this would mostly be a research trip because the novel I’m writing is set in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a place I’ve never been.

Dubrovnik at night
Dubrovnik's marble streets at night

Fortunately, my husband loves traveling as much as I do, and he’s very supportive of my writing. He’s also very patient, and barely complained at all as I stopped to take photo after photo of the ground, the sky, and everything in between. (I’ll bore you with some of them in my next few posts.)

Oddly enough, the week before I went I read a really interesting blog post by one of my favorite authors, Roxanne St. Claire, about her novel Shiver of Fear. It’s set in Northern Ireland, and Rocki said in the post that she’s never been there.

Instead, she relied on various sources, including someone she knows who lives in Belfast, to get the details right.

By the time I read Rocki’s post, I’d already written 14 chapters of my story. I’d gotten extensive information from a good friend of mine, a Croatian woman whose husband is Bosnian. I’d watched videos of Sarajevo on YouTube. I’d read about its history, including accounts of the war that I’ll never be able to erase from my mind. I’d bought a phrasebook and taught myself some of the language (which would have been impossible except I lived in Prague for three years and there are a lot of similarities between Czech and Bosnian).

I’d done my best to describe Sarajevo and Mostar, despite never having been there.

Once I arrived in Bosnia, I was happy to see that many things were as I’d imagined, but I also realized how many details I’d gotten wrong. It also hit me that most of my scenes are set in a car (yawn), and that’s probably because I could picture the inside of a car and deep down I wasn’t confident enough to describe locations around the two cities my novel’s set in.

Shiver of Fear coverI took Roxanne St. Claire’s Shiver of Fear with me on my trip. The reader in me got lost in the story, enough to cry at the end and to be shocked by a crucial twist. The writer in me, though, couldn’t get her blog post out of my head. How well did she describe this place she’d never visited?

I’m no expert on Northern Ireland. I’ve only been there a couple of times, and I know a little about the politics and Troubles because my father-in-law is from the Antrim coast. But I was amazed at how accurate Rocki’s descriptions were—even down to the fact that smoking’s illegal in pubs so smokers crowd around outside.

I was really impressed by the depth of both her research and her imagination.

I think writers who set their stories in contemporary locations that really exist are under a lot of pressure to get the details right. To some extent, if you make up a small town, you can create the details yourself, as long as your characters seem like they could come from that region. For example, if you create a small town in Texas but your characters speak and act like they’re from California, readers will be unlikely to believe your setting actually exists.

Writers who choose historical settings also have a huge job of getting the details right, especially if your story’s set in a time and place readers know (or think they know) a lot about, like Regency England. But you have one saving grace: none of your readers have ever been to Regency England. You have to do substantial research, but quite a lot can be left up to your imagination. If you get details wrong, savvy readers may be thrown out of the story, but they’re unlikely to be offended that you got their culture wrong.

Doors in mountains
Mysterious doors in a cliff, Dubrovnik

Then there are those writers who make up an entire world. Again, as with all writing, there’s research involved, but the world-building is mostly up to you. Your big job is not contradicting yourself with any of those details.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing a few posts about traveling for research purposes. Later this week, I’ll tell you why it was important for me to visit the place my story is set in. Next week, I’ll share some tips I learned about how to make your research trip worthwhile, and how to research a setting if you can’t visit a place.

But first, do you think you need to visit a place before you can describe it well? Have you ever traveled somewhere so you could research it for a story? Do you restrict your settings to places you already know well? When you’re reading, does it throw you out of the story if a place you know well isn’t described accurately?


  1. Heck, half the time I have trouble writing descriptions of places I HAVE been to. Until I’m famous enough to justify a trip solely for research, I tend to set my stories in places I’ve been, since there’s something about the ‘flavor’ of a site that’s more meaningful that working from pictures. But I try to have some picture-taking device with me to capture images, because even though it’s hard for me to write descriptions, at least a photo refreshes my sieve-like memory.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    1. Sounds like your memory’s like mine, Terry. I took pictures of everything I possibly could, yet when I was writing today I found myself wishing I’d taken more, and I only got back from Bosnia yesterday.

  2. Agh. I’m struggling with this very thing right now, as I set much of a book in a very distinctive part of Louisiana I’ve never visited. My only hope is that–since one can only get there by boat–my readers won’t have visited it either. Seriously, though, Google Earth is a lifesaver, but I sure wish I could do a research trip.

    1. I guess having a hard-to-reach setting is a blessing and a curse, Suz. What did writers do before Google – whether searching or using Google Earth? Unimaginable to me now.

    2. Hey there fellow writer! I was wondering about my setting for my my novel and read your post. I’m from Lafayette Louisiana and may have some info about the place your writing about. You didn’t mention the specific location but if you’d like to ask me some questions I may be able yo help. 😉 just let me know! 🙂

  3. I think it depends on how extensively your story uses place. If you just need street names and some cultural markers for dialogue, I think basic Google research works okay. But I usually need to see the place after I’ve done basic research, or at least talk to a native. There are so many treasures you can’t get from an atlas!

    1. Good point about it depending on how much of your story is set in a place, Sandy Sue. Where have you visited for your stories?

  4. this is a very timely post for me because i’ve been wrestling with going on a research trip. my main character drives from the middle of the country [U.S.] to the west coast. and while i have made that trip myself, it was 13 years ago. the internet has helped me a lot, but i still have this nagging feeling that i need to take the drive myself & see everything that he would see.

    1. KristenSays, I would do it, if you can. Driving half-way across the US is a massive trip, and a big undertaking, but one thing I found was that my imagination was sparked by the things I saw, and my story started taking on new nuances and details. I can only imagine that taking the same road trip as your hero will enhance your story in ways you didn’t expect.

      But, I have to be up front here. I love traveling and will take any excuse to do it. I know not everyone’s the same. 🙂

  5. I am not a fiction writer, so I do not have the same concern about location as you fiction writers do. My writings often focus on nature–and in that aspect, I do stay close to true experiences and places I really know. In my reading habits, your post got me thinking. Some of the series I like best are ones set in locations I do know. I like that sense of place that feels familiar: I know that corner, traffic there is always a hassle, whatever. At times the stories are linked to the place by nature of the neighborhood cultures and issues. However, if I did know the places would I still appreciate the stories? I think so–the writing rings true whether I know the location or not. I have not yet experienced the feeling that the writer got the “place” wrong–maybe timing, or how things unfold, the idiosyncracies that help us accept the characters as people down the street. Whether you visit the place in question or not, if you are researching for detail and–more importantly–are concerned about getting it right, I bet you will! I willbe more attentive to setting from now on as I read to see if it impacts the storyline. Thanks for making me think.

    1. Thank you, Patti, for your thoughtful response. I know what you mean about having a deep appreciation for stories that are set somewhere you know well. When I lived in LA, I read a lot of noir novels set there. Years later, when I was homesick for LA, I re-read some of them and was immediately transported back to those neighborhoods and the feeling of unique history the city has.

      I love it when books can do that. So much cheaper than a transatlantic flight. 😉

  6. I believe if enough research is done, it’s not necessary to travel there. I like visiting the locations, but my traveling budget isn’t rich enough. These days with the Internet it’s easier to find out about places.

  7. I’m hoping to visit the place my story is set in later this year because we’re actually thinking about moving there. Pulling double duty! 😉

    1. Fun adventure, Mallory! Hope you love it – as the setting for your story and for your life!

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