How To Write About A Real Location If You Haven’t Been There

Many fiction books jump from location to location, and include evocative detail on these settings. These scene changes help the action move along and set the story in the real world. But how do you write well about these places if you haven’t been there?

Thanks to reader Josh B for this great question posted on comments. This is something I have been struggling with myself so it seemed a good time to discuss it. I’d love to hear how others do it too. Obviously travel writers write about places they have been, fantasy/sci-fic authors write about imaginary places, but what about fiction authors setting books in real world geography?

Also, what about when you have been there, but you didn’t keep very good notes?

Here are some ideas:

  • Use your book as an excuse for a trip! This is my favorite tip and the one I intend to use when budget allows. Perhaps not practical for everyone but probably the best one. Philippa Ballantine took a trip to England to research the wonderful ‘Chasing the Bard’ podcast novel, and the research definitely added depth and detail.
  • Guidebooks, online travel sites and other books/websites. You can of course research the old fashioned way with books at the library or online at many of the travel sites around. I have a scene in Venice for my novel and although I have been there, I still found myself on the travel websites looking for historical information I missed as well as names of churches. The detail is important. My favorite travel site would be LonelyPlanet.com. You can also go to individual location sites e.g. pick a hotel in London and go to their webpage. Descriptions and photos there will tell you a lot, and combined with Google Earth and Street View, you don’t have to physically be there.
  • Surf Flickr and Travel blogs. The travel sites online with give you official information but personal travel blogs and Flickr photos from places will give you story behind those locations. Obviously you can’t plagiarize but you can write about photos you find and incorporate aspects into your story. Here’s a search I did on St Marks Venice New Year – look at all the concrete details I could incorporate into my writing.
  • Google Earth. You can download Google Earth and then travel from your computer. If you haven’t tried it yet, it is truly amazing. With satellite pictures of most of the world, you can zoom into sites and see related pictures other people have posted. Brilliant for getting the lay of the land and adding detail you might not have noticed otherwise. You can even add sunlight and shadows based on the time of day so you can see where your villain could hide to perform nefarious deeds!
  • Google Maps Street View. Your protagonist is hiding out in a New York apartment block and you want to know what might be around that area. Go to Google Maps and check out street view, which is expanding all the time. You can see pictures of the houses, cars and people around when the photos were taken. You can write about details of architecture, what is down the street, how the streetlamps look giving you real detail.
  • Interview someone who has been there. This can be a friend/family member or even someone you meet online. I am frequently asking people for interviews for my podcast. You can record an interview and then give them credit in your book. Those remembered details from a personal point of view may give you some brilliant writing.

Petra, Jordan. NOT next door to the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt!

Make sure your geography is right if you set your book in the real world.

It drives me nuts when books and movies change real-world geography to suit the story. Their credibility is shattered and often I ditch the book/movie right away.

Truth can be stretched but not physical distance if the setting is meant to be realistic. A very sad example of this is the latest Transformers movie (can’t believe I even watched it!). The heroes drive away from the pyramids at Giza and round the corner is Petra in Jordan. Both amazing settings but seriously. That’s annoying.

Image: Flickr CC Caveman 92223 World Map, Petra from Yaatra

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Comments

  1. says

    I heartily agree with Tip #1. If you can travel, then pack and go! My middle grade children’s adventure book The Secret of the Sacred Scarab is set in Egypt, a wonderfully exotic and extremely harsh location. One cannot imagine the heat … it has to be experienced. Ditto the sand, flies, noise, smells etc. And seeing the pyramids up close just cannot be matched by any image on the Net or in a book. I was lucky to actually be there and experience what I later wrote about. The veracity of any ‘real’ experience cannot be replaced. Reviewers have written that they knew I had been to Egypt, just from the descriptions, and that Egypt became a character in its own right during the telling of the tale. Of course I had to check all my facts later back home, but the initial impact of the place was the best experience.

    • says

      Thanks Fiona, I agree! I am writing about places I have been to but also researching to fill in what I missed. One of the locations is new though, so that will be fun!
      I loved Egypt as an experience, but Luxor at 42 degrees was hellish!

  2. KatieK says

    Last year I had to write something about Crimea. I started out Wikipedia to get an understanding of the history and politics, and then I moved to locally based websites to get more of a feel. Once I decided where I wanted the action to take place, or the atmosphere to describe I went into websites about flora and fauna, and then I did an image search and found what I needed. Last, I read guides to the places and then blog posts to get the general feel peple have had of these places. It sounds like a lot of work but it was a lot of fun and I feel that i know the place now.

  3. Josh B. says

    Thanks for the great post. There were alot of great suggestions. Though the 1st Tip would be the best, for many it is not attainable. The cost of travel is too great unfortunatly. I would love to travel the world and write about my journey but I know its not realistic. I think that the ability to imagin is a writer’s greatest asset. I remember reading a comment by Clive Cussler, talking about his exotic locations. He’s a man who has through his writing attained great wealth and he made the comment that he tends to only visit the locations he writes about after the book is already in print. Of course, he loves the research almost as much as writing the actual book. In his case it appears like imagination along with indepth research is the key.

    I particularly like the point that was made about not changing what is actually there. (i.e. distances or physical features). I always think, ‘somebody who has actually been there will read this.’ So credability is important. I also wanted to share a link to a great travel blog site: http://www.travelpod.com. A lot of great first hand experiences.

    Again, thanks for the great post and for responding to my comments. It will be very helpful in my upcoming novel.

  4. says

    My first book hopped all over creation. That was my first time using Google Earth. It was AWESOME and one of my favorite parts about writing the book. Thanks, as always, Joanna.

  5. says

    Thanks for another great post Joanna!

    Have you written, or do you plan to write, about how to make the location realistic when writing historical fiction? Part of my book is set in Boston, but in the 1920s. I need a time travel machine!

    Kelly

  6. says

    Thank you for this post! I’ve used Flickr and Google maps but for some reason or other never thought of guidebooks. And next time I write about Paris, I’m definitely using #1 as proof that the DH and I SHOULD take a trip. To ensure geographical accurancy, of course ;)

  7. says

    I spent ten weeks traveling Greece 16 years ago, and wrote a book about it. (Oedipus on a Pale Horse). My trip also enabled me to have a genuine feel for the countryside and traveling about the Aegean when I wrote an historical novel (The Mysteries). But the coastline has changed a lot, so I had to research the areas where it had changed, eg Ephesus where the ancient ruins are now several kilometers inland. I have also read everything I can get my hands on about ancient cities during the time period, ie, 480 BC. When I started to write the third volume of the trilogy this past fall, I returned to Greece (http://palehorseblog.com) to visit some of the more prominent settings: Athens, Brauron, Delos. and Eleusis. Nothing like standing in the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens or before the Gates of Hades at Eleusis to get in touch with setting. You have to get the basics right. I had to determine the speed of a trireme through the Aegean. and luckily I found “Travel in the Ancient World” and “Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World” both by Lionel Casson (he passed away in July of 2009). He had tabulated much of the data I needed. Just one of the thousands of details. Yet, probably the most powerful affect on me was the night I spent aboard a small ferry going from Samos to Lesbos. The wind and the waves almost turned the small vessel upside down.

    But sometimes it seems that the real world can actually be a hindrance to the imagination. All writing exists in a sort of mythical world that overshadows the real by the gravity of events and the internal landscape of the characters involved in the action.

    Yes, take a trip by all means and while there remember to document the the five senses as they work on you at each location. But also research, research, research.

    • says

      Thanks David – and I have got your book on my Kindle ready to read! Your research sounds fascinating, but sometimes it is that personal experience that adds something special. I was flooded in Venice at Christmas and will include that detail in the book. It changes the atmosphere so much. Thanks, Joanna

  8. says

    I think the most fun way to do it is interviewing people who have been to the place you’re writing about and/or have studied the region extensively. They are usually so passionate and enthusiastic about the place, which is really infectious!

  9. Joan M Sargent says

    My first novel took place in seven very different locations, and covered a time period of 3,600 years. Before starting the book, I had lived in only one of these locations, and visited another only briefly. This meant lots (I stopped counting at 150 books) of research. Before my ms. went to press, I somehow found the time and money to visit all but one of its settings–and was amazed how accurate my reading of each place had been. The key was in the very thorough research. All the methods you mentioned are great and I’d only add one more: weather statistics. BTW, I never worry about taking notes. If something in one’s wanderings doesn’t leave a lasting emotional impression, well–what use is it for inspiration?

  10. says

    Excellent post. While actual travel will give you details that research can’t match, that’s beyond most of us. Before the days of broadband I ghosted several novels set in countries I’d never been to, so learned the value of guidebooks and novels set in those places! I think one of the biggest myths has to be ‘write what you know’. With diligent research and a genuine thirst to get details right you can fake all sorts of experiences – including first-hand knowledge of a country and culture.

  11. says

    Get to know people from different countries and cultures. I have a lot of friends from all over the world, and you need not go further than their kitchen and a cup of coffee (Turkish or Greek or African bush tea :P) to get a wonderful understanding and feel for their mother countries.

  12. says

    Very good ideas. Favouriting this article. :) Have you already written an article on how to research historical fiction? I am amazed sometimes on how some great authors seem to have such a firm grasp on the everyday lives of times gone by. I never feel as if the history books I have read, have helped me withthis.

  13. says

    Great article, Joanna. You had me at number 1 – use it as an excuse for a trip! yes! calling that one into existence!

    Anywhooooo, another great way for authors writing crime fiction, spy craft or smuggling stuff, go to the state dept or even AAA websites and get a feel for the ‘seedy’ side of things in the area. It may give you a specific neighborhood, or tribe to watch for. Then just interject a little ‘selected info’ into your works and voila, you’re a native!

    Great stuff, Joanna. Thanks.

  14. says

    Good tips! In my novel, PaxCorpus, the setting is both Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Manhattan, NYC. Having lived in Harrisburg most of my life, this was easy. As far as Manhattan went, I loaded up Google maps and researched a lot of different things like locations.

    And, being the kind of book that it is, I think I was able to “draw” up a believable vision of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan-Harrisburg setting.

  15. Michael Kelberer says

    Hi Joanna,
    Great post – I’ve passed along to a few communities on G+. I’m especially fond of Google Earth as a research tool – Satellite imagery to give the geology/biology overview of the area, Street View to actually “walk” your character’s path, and of course Map view to get the travelogue right!

    One related question that came to mind while reading: I’m struggling with one of the down sides of using real world locations, namely the risk of offending (perhaps to the point of legal action) any communities (town or city), building owners, organizations (a State Park, for instance). In my WIP, the inciting incident is when people in a family decide to donate some of their land to Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (via a third party non-profit) specifically to add to an existing State park. In addition to the risks above, I have to describe where this land is and even if I keep it vague, it is sure to overlap with someone’s private property….

    Looking forward to your thoughts,
    Michael

  16. says

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each
    time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!

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