Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

my road map
Photo courtesy of Lauren Marek

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?

Research.

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?

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About Kristan Hoffman

Kristan Hoffman was a finalist in our search for an unpublished contributor; a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Awards for her novel The Good Daughters (women’s fiction/multicultural); and the winner of the St. Martin’s Press “New Adult” Contest for her web series, Twenty-Somewhere (now available as an ebook).

Comments

  1. says

    A good resource/research tip is to contact official organisations & societies.

    For example, if you are crafting a story or article around UK based banking in the early 19th C, you could contact The British Banking History Society and ask them questions about the day-to-day life of bankers back through time.

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  2. says

    I can relate, Kristan. I wrote a story, ‘Southwest’, about an empty-nest woman taking a trip through the southwest of England that elicited comments of ‘it’s obvious the author has traveled extensively in the region’. I hadn’t and never have. It was all from Wikipedia and other online sources. ‘You can fool some of the people….’

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  3. says

    I’ve been writing a story that takes place in Kenya–and I’ve never been there. I have used all the sources you mentioned, but the one that’s turned out to be the most useful is one you did not mention–YouTube. Many safari camps and conservation organizations have terrific videos, and many people who have traveled there have also posted their videos online. It’s a great way to really get a feel for the land…

    However, it’s still pretty hard to write about a place you haven’t visited, especially one so different to where I do live. I am hoping to find a couple of native Kenyans to beta read the story when I’m finished to make sure I’ve got everything as accurately as possible and haven’t made a fool of myself. Anyone out there?

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  4. says

    Thanks for these great tips, Kristan. I visited the setting of one of the scenes in my first novel. It was the Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. I learned more about it, though, from the church’s website and I used some of that detail. Another good tip came from Elizabeth George in her craft book. Among other things, she urges writers when they visit a site to take lots of pictures and study the topography and plant life of the setting. Setting is an often overlooked but key component to a story. Thanks again.

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  5. says

    These are great tips Kristan. My WIP is set in France in the 1920s which is requiring a lot of research. I’ve had great luck so far in using many of your suggestions. When it comes to finding details about historical fashions for men and women, blogs are a great resource.

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  6. says

    For me? Kathmandu Nepal. Not the Nepal of “The Snow Leopard” or “Annapurna” – but the teeming megalopolis of a South Asian city. It’s a spiritual place, but I work and consult in hospitals there, so I get to see a side of the country that people don’t usually see. For that matter, in my work as a critical care in USA the same applies. My book comes out in six more weeks.

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  7. Deb Boone says

    For foreign turf, I’ve had great luck researching data pages like agriculture, health indicators etc. The overview info tends to lead you to other great places. Doctors without Borders medical bloggers have been a wonderful firsthand look into life in a distressed country. One of my favorite tools, however, is the librarian. Many libraries have online research librarians who can point to a source, or even directly answer a question like what species of trees grow in Arlington National cemetery.
    So much good research info, Kristan. Thank you.

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  8. says

    Great tips, Kristan! And everyone here is so helpful. I’ve learned about all your sites as well as YouTube. Thank you. One of my books is set in Iowa and I used the internet just as you suggested. Isn’t it wonderful?

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  9. says

    I use Nashville as a setting a lot, both in futuristic and contemporary settings. I have used all of the above resources, but while researching my next novella, I used restaurant review/research sites.

    This “could” go along with Google and travel sites, but if you are writing something contemporary and your characters go out to eat somewhere other than a fictional restaurant, it can come in handy. Also, using the addresses you find there, then plugging them into Google maps can give you an idea of the area and what the building looks like.

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  10. says

    These are some great suggestions, Kristin. Thanks for sharing! WikiTravel…hmm, have to add that to my list! Isn’t it wonderful how the Internet has given us writers an edge on research?

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  11. says

    Thank you for this helpful list, Kristin.
    Most of my stories are set in places I’ve lived in.
    But…
    I recently attended a literary event. One of the topics discussed that evening was research. And one of the authors commented that it was most important to get the culture right. So if I were to set a story in a place that was foreign to me I would interview someone who had lived there for at least a month.

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  12. says

    Make sure you get a good map. Many cities have local or regional magazines and newspapers, which are helpful, too — as much for the ads as the articles. I’m writing a mystery series set in Seattle, where I lived for 15 years but left 20 years ago, so I read the local paper on line regularly, subscribe to the police dept crime blotter and several local blogs, and follow a few local businesses and institutions on FB.

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  13. says

    Good tips, Kristin. I’ve used them all. Even though I’ve been everywhere I write about, I don’t necessarily have the intimate knowledge of the places that my characters need to have. As my stories often involve road trips (Highway Mysteries!) I like to use Google maps to zero in on city streets or truck stops, for example. YouTube videos of stretches of the Alaska highway have been useful for researching my current WIP.

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  14. says

    I’m working an a historical novel set in Hungary, where I lived for several months–but over a decade ago. I’ve used several of the sources you mention, and I’ve done a lot of library research on nineteenth century culture in Hungary. But one of the most useful treasure troves was a little 1970s guidebook I found on Amazon to a historical site–it included photos and historical details I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else.

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  15. says

    A terrific, short but sweet list!

    I’ll second Deb Boone about using reference librarians for free guidance. Some libraries have online reference help too, so you don’t even need to leave home to ask a question.

    For historical materials, the collection of prints, photographs, manuscripts, and maps at the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) is immense and much is digitized. Local historical societies also have great collections online or in house for visuals on past times and places.

    All that being said, I can’t say enough about seeing the world. Traveling’s been a big part of my life and shaped the way I think and what I write. Even if I can’t get to a far off destination, I at least walk a different street or take a different route through my neighborhood just to keep shifting my perspective. Sometimes they’re dead ends, but sometimes a new setting, a new face, a new point of view is waiting right around the corner.

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  16. says

    For one of my novels, I grabbed the Google map of the downtown area and traced the characters’ steps, including restaurants and the fastest route between two points. Awesome for a visual person. I did the same with my current WIP, printing the map of a small town and overlaying my fictional town so I could figure it all out.

    Also, when possible, I try to talk to as many people as possible from (or frequent visitors) to the area.

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  17. says

    These are great suggestions. I’ll add restaurant menus to
    the list. I’m a serious travel addict and have been fortunate to
    travel to some of the places (like Provence and the French Riviera)
    I use as the settings in my writing. There’s so much to see while
    you’re travelling and you can miss some of the details so I rely on
    the site maps, pamphlets and other items I collect along the way,
    as well as closer looks at my photos after I return home.

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  18. says

    Kristran, read your post with inspired interest. At present my setting is TriBeCa. No problem. I hit the streets and saw the sights and heard the sounds. But how did I get into one of Tribeca’s lofts. I went into the pages Architectural Digest. Researched through the New York Times Style Magazine. An absolute must is the Times Travel section. I’ve been to places that I’m writing about. Plus the travel articles are written like novels. Of course, Google.

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  19. says

    You can also tour the surface of the Moon and Mars on
    Google Earth. I’ve taken advantage of that once or twice for
    writing science fiction.

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  20. Carlye Knight says

    This post came right in time. I’m not only researching a new location for my next novel, but also a whole different era. Of course this means I will fall down the Google Earth rabbit hole, but it’s worth it!

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