It’s great fun to write about faraway places – especially when you’ve been to those faraway places! I do it all the time – and it’s my favorite kind of research.
If you want to set your story in a location that’s unfamiliar to you, nothing beats actually visiting the setting to add the realistic, immersive details that transport your reader right into the heart of your story.
Full disclosure: I travel because I love encountering new places, people and experiences – and sometimes a book emerges, to my surprise! Other times, I already have a book in mind, and my trip is part enjoyment and part research. Either way, I’m happy. These days, a lot of our travel is virtual, but the day will come again when we can pack our suitcases and head off in search of stories.
Time, place, environment: where and when?
First things first: is your story set in a specific historical time, community and country, or will it be set in an unspecified time in a fictitious location? If the latter, what real-life community, region, and country most closely resembles the setting you have in mind?
Sometimes the place is familiar, but some of the characters who inhabit it are otherworldly. That’s the approach I took with my Buy Me Love Shapeshifter series, set in London.
If I’m having trouble envisioning a specific setting for a story, I think about the setting as if it was another character. I ask myself how the setting can interact in a meaningful way with my hero or heroine. I want the setting to not only serve as a fitting backdrop but also to advance my plot.
I love writing historicals, because I get to travel in two dimensions! Even better, novels like my Time Slip series allow me to juxtapose and explore historical and present-day characters, conflicts, and consequences – what could be more fun?
If you plan to set your story in a specific time period, a research trip helps you soak up details, not only about the physical setting, but also about how people lived, ate, dressed, worked and played at that time. What did their homes and communities look like? What issues of the day mattered to them -- specifically to your characters? How did they get around? Will your characters travel? Plan your trip so you can travel along with them.
If your story is set in the past, you’ll want to figure out where you could visit museums and historical sites to learn more about how people lived at that time.
Do the season and the weather play a role in your story? Make sure you visit your location at a time of year that makes sense for your story. If your character will look out her window at a blaze of fall color in Maine, lucky you – go enjoy the show!
After you’ve settled on a time and place, dig in! List the specific communities and locations that you would like to visit on your trip. Do you want your characters to hang out at a favorite coffee shop (like NYC’s DeMarco’s Café)? Will they fight rush hour traffic, visit a park or a museum, buy pastries at a bakery, dance in a castle ballroom or nightclub, or pitch hay on a farm?
What communities, locations, establishments, and neighborhoods most resemble the places where your characters will live out the plot you have in mind? Plan to visit long enough to take in some of the little details of daily life that add color and realism to your story. During your visit, engage all your senses and capture what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt for later inclusion in your story. My visit to Saigon, for what became the Forest Breeze trilogy, produced not only great memories of an amazing city, but also a feast of sights, sounds, tastes and smells that helped bring these books to vivid life.
Trip Research - Know Before You Go
If you’re heading to an international destination, do your travel homework and plan your trip in detail. Once there, your goal is to concentrate on your story research, not figure out on the fly how to navigate an unfamiliar community and country. You’ll want to answer questions like these:
- What are the basic customs? What happens when you don’t know the customs?
- What currency does this country use?
- Do you need a visa?
- Do you need vaccines?
- What are some common phrases you should know?
It’s not practical to learn a whole new language before traveling, but you’ll find people are more receptive if you make the effort to speak their language. If you do learn common questions, make sure you also learn possible answers. For example, it doesn’t help if you ask for directions, but don’t know the words for ‘right’ and ‘left’. For more ideas on traveling internationally, including Julie-tested tips on visas, credit cards, and currency.
Create Your Itinerary
Create your trip itinerary. List every community, site, and institution you want to visit, and create a rough daily itinerary, including travel time and method. Make sure admission-based institutions, sites, and attractions are open on the times/days you’re planning to visit. For example, a museum may have shorter hours on Sunday or be closed for national holidays.
Travelling and sightseeing is tiring enough, but you’ll also be observing, taking notes, concentrating, and absorbing as much as you can. It’s stimulating, but also exhausting. If you’re not used to a busy day, remember to build in time in your itinerary for short breaks or naps.
Research the communities you will be visiting and the accommodations available. Do you want local flavor or (if available) big-hotel amenities? Read the reviews, look for the details (how rustic is ‘rustic’?), and understand where your accommodations are located relative to the specific neighborhoods you want to visit.
Think ahead about voice and data communications. For example, an international SIM card is designed to work with multiple networks around the world. Make sure you understand the various plans available to you and how well they will work in the country you are visiting.
As you create your itinerary, this is a great time to think about transportation. How will you get around the city, or out to the countryside? Should you rent a car or hire a guide? Use Uber or public transportation? If possible, try to use the transportation that locals use, as it will help add details to your characters’ day-to-day lives.
Do you need to set up interviews with local experts? Find the individuals who are most likely to be able to help you, and reach out early. Perhaps your embassy or your local library, university or other contacts might help you track down expert sources who will provide the background details for your book. As part of your research, determine whether you need the services of a translator as well.
What to pack for your adventure:
Some people love packing. Some people get overwhelmed by it. For your packing list, consider adding these items:
- Weather-appropriate gear
- Coat (windbreaker, snow jacket, etc.)
- Layers (long johns, sweaters)
- Hat, scarf, gloves
- Warm socks
- Boots or other warm shoes (make sure they’re comfortable enough to walk in)
- Flowy/light/wrinkle-free tops or dresses
- Comfortable sandals or other walking shoes
- Chargers (laptop, phone etc.)
For international travel, there are a few more items that get added to the list:
- Outlet converter
- Money, there is usually a significant service fee to use your credit card. Go to your bank ahead of time to withdraw the appropriate currency
Here’s my biggest pro tip: the longer the trip, the less I pack.
Enjoy Your Adventure!
If your story is about a local, look for places where you can comfortably become a shameless people-watcher. How do locals spend their time? How do they interact? Where do they shop, what do they wear, how do they spend their time, what do they like to eat and drink?
And while you want to visit all the locations you have so carefully planned out, don’t forget about serendipity. Leave space for those unexpected, delightful unforeseen opportunities, and go where the story wants to take you. Enjoy, and bon voyage!