7 Tips for Writing About Places You’ve Never Been

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman walking near ruins

Here’s a new question from a Write It Sideways reader, which I’ve paraphrased for length and clarity:

I’m thinking about writing a novel, but I was wondering if I could set the story in a place I’ve never been to. Is this possible? If so, how can I find out enough details about the setting to make my story plausible?

Writing about a foreign place is, in some ways, akin to setting your novel in a historical era you know nothing about.

Let’s say you wanted to write about medieval times. Sure, you have some vague ideas about knights, princesses, peasants, horses, castles, and a lack of running water. But what about the particulars? Do you know how they spoke? What they ate? How they worshipped? What they did for entertainment?

Historical writers must have vast amounts of knowledge on a particular era to make their settings plausible, even though they’ve never actually ‘been there.’ Though the average person wouldn’t be able to pick up on small inaccuracies in research, there’s always someone who will (and will point it out).

When writing about a place to which you’ve never been, the advantage you have over a historical writer is that—when all’s said and done—you can go to that place. You can also find a great deal of information just by logging onto your computer, reading books, and talking to people who have first-hand knowledge.

An Author Who’s Never Been to Her Novel’s Setting

Author Stef Penney wrote her novel The Tenderness of Wolves, which is set in northern Ontario, never having been there. The title was named Costa Book of the Year, but one native Ontarian reader told The Sunday Times:

The only disappointment is that the distances here [in Ontario] are vast and Penney has her characters travel them in too short a time (I think because she has never been to Canada). Going from forests to the treeline would take weeks. Driving along the top of Lake Superior takes three days! So imagine footslogging from northern Georgian Bay into Hudson Bay.

If you’re interested in Penney’s experience of writing The Tenderness of Wolves, check out this video. At around the 1:45 mark, she mentions never having been to Canada prior to writing the book.

This is a great example of how even the best writers, even the most well-researched ones, can make mistakes. And sooner or later, someone always picks up on it.

Research Doesn’t Always Cut It

Here’s another writer’s experience I pulled from Absolute Write Water Cooler:

When it comes to New York, I can always tell when somebody is basing the story only on a research or a weekend trip to the city, and it irks me. There are little things that I pick up on.

For example, in his first book, John Connolly has his native-NYer characters spending a great deal of time running around the city, and it’s painfully obvious that, while his research was impeccable, the experiences are not authentic.

Somebody who is a native wouldn’t be hanging out at obvious tourist traps and restaurants that have extensive Wikipedia articles written about them.

Be wary of writing about specific, real locations if you have little or no first-hand experience there. Sometimes it’s better to make up your own fictional city set in the general region you wish to write about.

For example, having lived the majority of my life in northern Ontario, I could safely set my novel in a fictional town anywhere in Canada, with the help of a little research.

But, if I wanted to write about the town of Goderich in Ontario (where I’ve never been), I’d need to conduct a lot of research, or there’d be a lot of Goderichians unhappy with my inaccurate portrayal of their home. In fact, even if I did a lot of research, I might still find it difficult to capture such a town from the same perspective as a local.

Tips for Researching a Place You’ve Never Been

If you’re brave enough to take the plunge and set your story in a foreign place, in addition to visiting your local library you’ll want to:

  1. Look up local language differences. Having moved from Canada to Australia, I know this one is huge. Everyday words and phrases can mean something completely different in another culture. Canadians say, “No problem,” and Australians say ,”No worries.” Canadians wear tuques, and Australians wear beanies. I’ve also discovered that some words we use in Canada are actually offensive to Australians, and vice versa.
  2. Use Google Street View to take yourself there. I absolutely love street-viewing different places I’ve never been. Although many places haven’t been mapped yet, you’d do yourself a favour to choose a setting that Google has done. Taking a stroll around the block in a foreign city or country is as easy as clicking your mouse.
  3. Check out Flickr for photographs of your location. Depending on what setting you choose, you might find helpful pictures within this searchable database.  Oh look, here’s a bunch of photos of Goderich. And here’s Uluru in Australia.
  4. Conduct email interviews. Contact people who live in your desired setting through their blogs, Twitter, or other social networks. Ask if they’d be willing to answer a few questions about where they live. First-hand information is always best.
  5. Read municipal, provincial, and federal government websites. Government websites usually have sections about local customs and what tourists or immigrants can expect. They also list helpful facts about states/provinces/territories and can give you insight into the economic situation in those areas. This Ontario government website shares links to a host of other places to conduct research on the province.
  6. Watch movies or read books set in the same location. What better way to instantly put yourself in the right frame of mind? Here’s a blog post about recommended novels set in France, for example. And here’s a huge list of movies set in New York City.
  7. Plan a research trip. If you’re truly driven to write about another culture, and you have the means, the very best way to prepare yourself would be to actually visit! Of course, a vacation of just a week or two may only be enough to give you a general feel for the location, so plan wisely.

Published writer and librarian Trudy W. Schuett told The Adventurous Writer:

If you’re writing about a place you’ve never been, make sure that what you say about the place and the real people who live there is true.

Lately I’ve seen writers put a huge Western-style ranch in an Eastern state, describe a modern Indian reservation in 1880s terms, and refer to nonexistent airplane routes.

Most readers can overlook small mistakes, but big mistakes can be jarring enough to wreck your story, especially when a quick online search is all that’s needed to locate the facts.

So, although writing about an unknown place has been done successfully, it’s a great responsibility for any writer to undertake—one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

On the other hand, if we only ever wrote about our own tiny spheres of knowledge, we’d all miss out on some wonderful literature.

What do you all think? Is it wise to write a story about a place to which you’ve never been? Have you attempted it yourself?

Do you have other tips to share for those considering this challenge?

 

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