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

    Two additional resources not mentioned:

    1. Memoirs. These can have a lot of rich setting details about the place. I was reading one by someone in Los Angeles, and it reminded me of how the air wavers over the cars sitting in traffic. A lot of my Hawaii details came from a book written by a person who lived there for several years.

    2. Pocket Naturalist Guides. These are fold out guides for plants, trees, birds, animals, etc. They’re a great resource for getting the most common things people would see (which is hard to find online).

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  1. […] discovered the website “The Creative Penn” by Joanna Penn.  From her most recent blog post (“How To Write About A Real Location If You Haven’t Been There”), I saw and followed a link to a related post entitled “What Will You Give Up To Write Your […]

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