Visiting Your Story’s Location

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?

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8 Responses to Visiting Your Story’s Location

  1. The descriptions of what you find when you visit vs what you find in research made me smile! I am not an author, but I agree wholeheartedly, the reader has a vested interest. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Amy M. Reade says:

    Lea, great post. You answered my question thoroughly and beautifully. I also believe it’s important for a writer to visit the setting of her book, provided the setting is a real place. And I find that even though I write about real places, I sometimes change their names to give myself the freedom to play with setting a bit, for example, to add physical features that may not really exist there or to change things around in a town to place them exactly where I need them to be. I must say that I’ve never been to Maine, but it’s on my bucket list and your books only make that longing stronger!

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  3. So much wisdom here, Lea. Your books ring with authenticity because of your thorough research. It is so helpful to know your methods.

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  4. Triss Stein says:

    Very true, Lea, and very well said. I’d add one more reason, even if ( especially if!) it is a well known place. In that case, there will be websites, photos, books galore. That kind of fools you into thinking you don’t need a visit, but it will be your won personal, quirky observation that makes the famous place new and fresh to your reader.

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  5. David Edgar Cournoyer says:

    I liked your take on place and research, especially the importance of being surprised by the locale. I recently participated in my first night shore fishing tournament as research for a book. I was surprised how dark it was, how the damp air lay like a cold blanket, and how creepy it was not being able to see people a few feet away. The scene that inspired that bit of research received a thorough revision and feels much more real.

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  6. Barb Ross says:

    I agree–visit whenever you can! While research is so important, especially for tales set in the past, nothing gives you the full-senses feeling of a place except a visit. My new Level Best story takes place in 1947 partially in the Jersey Highlands where my ancestors spent their summers for many decades. I’d seen photos of myself there as an infant, but had never been within memory. Happily, I was able to persuade my husband to stop there on our way home from Stone Harbor this summer and to visit the Twin Lights.

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  7. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you for all your comments – I agree with all! (Thank you, Amy, for suggesting the topic — glad I could be of help!) Nothing grates more horribly than knowing an area/place and having an incorrect detail stand out. I’m a great believer in books — but sometimes you have to see a place to get the 5 senses experience. Love your example, David! You’ve got it! (And so will your readers!)

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