I just went on my first official writing research trip!
I’m gearing up to revise my third novel and write my fourth; both are set in a little California town that I love. I’ve visited once a year on average for the last fifteen or so years, but always for a get-away, never with an eye to writing about it. So it was time.
I know what you’re thinking. These days, you don’t need to leave your house to research a location. You can stroll the streets of Paris on Google maps, and you can search the history of any place, even down to the buildings and the people who live there. So why bother doing a research trip?
As writers, we try to capture the five senses when we write, and we try to take things deeper than the typical experience, and internet research can’t capture that for you. Not the smells of the freshly-baked bread from the boulangerie. Not the sound of the violinist sitting in the park, or the crisp sweetness to the air in the morning. Not the precious surprises, like the hidden courtyards or the sculptures in the cheese shop. It can’t capture the people, their manner and their accents. Your experience of these things, even if they don’t all make it concretely into your writing, will give the ring of truth the same way your character’s backstory gives dimension even if you never reveal it.
Here are my tips for getting the most out of your trip:
1) Do your research beforehand. Yes, I know that sounds like it contradicts what I just said and you’re tempted to throw something at me (don’t do it, you’ll only break your tablet). But I'm talking about a different type of research. Figure out what you need to see and experience that you can't otherwise (especially in accord with #2). Find the right tours, etc., to meet the particular needs of your book.
2) Do what your characters do, go where they go. If your book has already been planned to some degree (outlined or even partially written), you already know some of the things your characters will need to do, and some of the scene settings you'll need to use. Maybe several scenes will take place in a diner a la Seinfeld, and you'd like to pick a real one to use for authenticity. Maybe your murder mystery takes place in an art museum; you'll want to visit that museum (find out if photography is allowed in advance, take notes on layout, etc., while there if not). If your characters work at the police station (or will end up there at some point), pay a visit and at least see where it is and what the outside looks like.
But don’t forget the non-obvious stuff. Where does someone of your protagonist’s demographics live in that city/town? Where do they shop? In my book's town, there are no chain grocery stores, only two mom-and-pop grocers; I never realized that before this trip, because when I’d visited before I was on vacation and ate out. Where do relevant locals hang out? What restaurants do they eat at? If they have kids, what do the schools and parks look like? The daily routine of someone living in Manhattan versus a small town in Central California is going to look very different, and you want to be able to portray that well. So don't just eat in the restaurants you want to try, eat in the restaurants they would eat in. Check out the places they would go.
What if you only have a very vague idea of what your plot will be? If the location is a far away, expensive trip, you might want to wait until you've written a first draft or detailed outline, and adjust your revisions accordingly. But if it's close and easy to get to, why not let the location itself spark ideas for you? Maybe you'll fall in love with a particular park and the perfect scene will practically write itself.
3) Talk to locals. Strike up a conversation with local people when you’re doing your thing. Tell them you’re writing a book set in their town, and you’re almost certain to be met with enthusiastic help. People are proud of their homes and their knowledge, and they’ll hook you up with all kinds of inside information. And while you’re talking to them, pay attention for any local expressions or mannerisms they use.
4) Take a local walking tour or two. Larger tours like bus tours and duck tours are fun and good for an introduction to the city/town. But smaller walking tours are where you’re gonna get your gold. These take a longer time to cover a smaller area and your guide will fill that time with information. Usually information that’s hard to come by elsewhere; local lore, obscure facts, interesting trivia, all the stuff you want to spice up your book. Take the time to find quality tours run by experienced guides; they take pride in what they do and truly love the subject. And ask them questions! They are enthusiastic about sharing what they know, or they wouldn’t be doing this for their living. Tell them you’re writing a book about their beloved town, and watch the information flow. Just don’t ask so many questions that the other people on the tour can’t get their own in, and remember to tip your guide well.
5) Stop by the local history museum. I know what you’re thinking: "We have a local history museum where I live and it has exactly three postcards and a stuffed jackalope." First off, I bet it has more than you really appreciate, because you’re a local and you know local stuff already that an outsider wouldn't. Local history museums give priority to preserving things that larger museums can't, and you’ll be surprised what you can find there. Maybe you’ll discover an annual quilting competition founded in the 1800s put the town on the map—and that it still happens every year. That little nugget right there could be the basic plot for the next mystery in your series. Second, even if the museum doesn't really have much, it does have a docent who loves the area and has tons of knowledge hiding in their little gray cells.
What about bigger cities? They often have smaller specialty museums based on different aspects of local history. Do some digging and find the ones that relate to your book.
6) Experience local transportation. Sure, maybe you have enough money to take cabs everywhere when you visit NYC (if so, would you like to adopt me?), and would never need to set foot in the subway. But if one or more of your characters will be on that subway, make sure you get down there and experience it. Even walking down the street in your book's location may be very different from what you’re used to; walking in Manhattan during commute times, for example, is an experience unlike any other. So get out and walk where/when your character would walk. Stand in line for that cup of coffee they pick up on the way to work. Taste the street meat they grab for lunch when they're in a hurry.
7) Try to go at the right time of the year. Maybe you hate snow and it would never occur to you to go to Boston in November. But if that’s when your book is set and you visit in August, you’re going to miss a lot of detail that would lift your book to a different level.
8) Be on the lookout for the unique and quirky. When I was in Paris, I saw a lady feeding sparrows out of her hand in front of Notre Dame Cathedral (she did this regularly). I tried to imitate her with the leftovers of my morning baguette; she came over and showed me how to attract them, and soon I had scores of little birds sitting on my fingers and eating crumbs from my palm. Not only was that an amazing experience, but how wonderful would it be to have this woman in your Parisian mystery? Think of they joy your readers will feel if they recognize her in your book! Did you know that the Roman Colosseum is overrun with stray cats? Throw a cat or two into your description, and you just got a lot more real. Did you know that bands really do walk through the streets of the French quarter in New Orleans? (That detail made it into my second book, sho’ you right.) Writers have great imaginations, and we can make up our own color when we need to. But if we can capture the color that’s already there, so much the better for connecting with others who love our location.
9) Take a lot of pictures and video. I’m talking an obsessive, mind-numbing, ridiculous amount of pictures. Of things big, details small, and everything in between. You think you’re gonna remember it all, but I promise you, you won’t. As I was writing up my notes an hour after finishing my walking tour, I went through my pictures and they reminded me of several things I'd already forgotten. And sure, there are tons of pictures on the web of things like Times Square. But only YOUR picture will capture what was on the billboards while you were there, and that crazy lady who was wearing a hat that matched her dog’s.
And I’m not talking about those types of pictures, anyway. Pretend you’re a photographer who is trying to capture what’s unique about the city in a new way, and you’ll end up with a trove of material to spark memories and build setting. I've even been known to literally take pictures over my shoulder when I’m on a tour that is moving too quickly for me to snap all the pictures I want. What can it hurt? These aren’t the days of yore when you had to go to ye olde film store and pay through the nose for developing; if the picture is a blur, you can delete it. But it’s always always always better to have too many than not remember that perfect detail for your scene.
10) Journal, journal, journal. Write down what you're experiencing as you get the chance, in down moments and at the end of the day. You'll be experiencing a lot in a short period of time, and memory decays quickly when overloaded. So dump what you can onto the paper and keep that storage space clear for the next bunch of information! Also, journaling now will help keep those experiences fresh and compelling.
Most of all, don’t forget to soak it up and enjoy. Whether you chose your location because it’s somewhere you love or have always dreamed of going, or because it’s a necessary by-product of the story you want to tell, let it invade your soul. Your experience of it will naturally bleed into the story you write, and will make your project that much richer.
Have other tips that I missed? Leave them for me in the comments!