Thanks to Stephanie Perkins and Paula McLain, I can visit Paris anytime I want. Shilpi Somaya Gowda has taken me to Mumbai. My tour guide in Maine is Elizabeth Strout. And I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed.
Good books take us on a journey, both literally and figuratively. As a writer, I’ve started to think more carefully about the literal part. Because when it’s done well, setting impacts pretty much every facet of a story — plot, voice, character, theme, etc.
This is where “write what you know” can be useful. Presumably if you’ve spent enough time in a place, you can cull details from your experiences and imbue a story with them. Specificity is what brings pages to life.
But what if you want to write about someplace you’re not familiar with? Writers aren’t often jetsetters; we can’t just hop over to a foreign locale and take notes. So what’s the best way to create a rich and authentic setting?
Fortunately we live in a day and age with many excellent resources at our fingertips. Here’s what I generally recommend:
- Start with Google. This is a no-brainer, right? But don’t stop at the first result (which will probably be Wikipedia). Scroll through a few pages and look for other (more) authoritative sources, such as official government sites, tourism organizations, and news outlets.
- Speaking of Wikipedia… It’s totally fine for an overview, but take the information with a grain of salt. Click through to some of the source materials (via the footnote links) and see how credible they are or what additional information they offer. Also, try the other wiki: WikiTravel.
- For visuals, search Google Images and Flickr. Personally I keep a folder of images for both reference and inspiration. Sometimes if I’m stuck on a sentence, or having a hard time getting into a scene, I’ll flip through the pictures and let them pull me into the story.
- Also, Google Maps is kind of incredible. From alleyways in Shanghai to water taxi routes in Venice, it’s a treasure trove of information — and growing daily. Don’t forget to check some of the in-depth options, like Street View and Terrain View. And if there are any geo-tagged photos, those can be a nice supplement to your image search.
- Look for primary sources – like blogs! The internet reaches so many corners of the world, and people everywhere are sharing their stories. Firsthand accounts from volunteers, missionaries, and ESL teachers can be especially helpful to us English-speaking writers — although if you want a native’s perspective, many browsers can “Translate This Page.” Also, review sites and forums like Yelp or Trip Advisor offer “everyman” impressions of local attractions.
- Go “old-school” and buy a top-rated guidebook. Or research at your local library. As amazing as the internet can be, there’s still a lot of great information that isn’t available on your desktop for free. Guidebooks pride themselves on showcasing both the touristy highlights and the local hotspots, and certain brands have distinct focuses, like cuisine, wildlife, or history. And libraries will often be a better source for non-contemporary texts.
Phew, that’s quite a lot, isn’t it? Well, after you’ve done all your research — taking care not to let it become a form of productive procrastination! — my advice is to put everything away. Fiction has an obligation to be authentic, but not necessarily accurate. So once you’ve absorbed the facts, give yourself the freedom to invent. Follow the story. Take your characters, your readers, and yourself on a journey.
Did I miss any good resources or research steps? If so, please share! Also, where have you traveled to lately, as either a reader or a writer?