Lea Wait, here.
At a recent mystery conference I spoke on a panel titled “Research.” While I was preparing notes on that topic I asked my Facebook friends what they’d be interested in knowing about research. Amy Reade asked, “Do you have to visit places you write about?”
Without dealing with the question of fictional locations (which still have to remain true in all ways to the area where they’re set), my answer is a definite “yes.” And then I’ll add a “but.”
BUT … I’d strongly advise doing a lot of homework before you set your GPS or buy your plane ticket. First, I’m assuming you have a definite reason your story has to take place in a certain location. (I’ve set contemporary books on Prouts Neck, in Maine, in central New Jersey, and at the Duchess County Fairground in New York State as well as in Maine. My characters in historicals have lived in or visited Saratoga, New York, Charleston, South Carolina, and Edinburgh, Scotland, among other places.)
I’ve lived in some of those locations; I visited the rest when I knew I’d be writing about them. But I spent months researching before I visited.
Why? Several reasons. First, my stories were set in history. Visiting those cities today wouldn’t show me what they looked like in 1805 or 1848, the years I was setting my stories. I wanted to know what the cities looked like in the past. I found maps, pictures, books on the histories of the cities, read other books set in those locations, and basically immersed myself in the food, climate, animals, plants and, of course, the people who lived there at that time.
After I felt I’d feel at home in that place, at that time, I went there with a list of specific places to see and questions to answer. I chose places for my characters to live. I visited local archives to see newspapers printed at the time. I took binders of notes. I walked the streets, tasted the food, and, in Charleston, even lived through a hurricane and visited homes that had been in Charleston when my characters lived there.
I immersed myself in the towns. I interviewed historians about specific questions I had, visited the locations my characters knew, and, perhaps most important, walked the streets and imagined the people in my book walking there.
I took pictures. I bought postcards. I bought local maps, books on local plants and animals and geology, and recipe books that dated to the past. (Used bookstores helped there.)
In no place I visited for the first time after researching it did I find it as I’d imagined it. No written sources I’d studied could tell me what color the cobblestones were, or how close the university felt to the area where my characters lived, or what tombstones were important in the local cemeteries … and how tall they were, and how weathered, and how the grounds were kept up and whether squirrels or cats lived there.. Yes, maps can tell you where streets are. But feeling how close buildings are to those streets, how high they are, where sunlight falls or shadows hide, is critical to making descriptions real.
So my answer to Amy, and everyone else who has asked, is simple.
Yes. Visit the places where your characters live. And even if you live in the same location as your characters, double check to make sure the right birds arrive at the right times, the right flowers bloom, and the right fish spawn.
Google maps can help, yes. But they can’t tell you the smells and sounds and feel of a place. They can’t tell you how living in a place can mold a character.
You need to get all those things right to make your story credible.
True – not every writer does. But how many times have you read a story or novel about a place you knew and found errors? Those errors take readers out of the story.
And you don’t want your readers to stop reading, do you?