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?

 

{ 29 comments }

The Adventurous Writer March 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Hello Suzannah,

I don’t have anything to add to these great tips, but I wanted to say thank you for including The Adventurous Writer! I’m honored to be part of this post, even though it’s not really ME who contributed :-)

All good things,
Laurie

Suzannah March 21, 2011 at 7:57 pm

No problem, Laurie! I often use your wonderful site for inspiration or quotations. Keep up the good work, and thanks for stopping by!

jennifer blanchard March 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Some really great tips here, Suzannah! When I was writing my first novel (based in So-Cal) I still did a ton of research, even though I lived there for more than 2 years. I found Google Earth to be extremely helpful when it came to the research portion. And I also did as you suggested and made up some fictional restaurants and stuff like that.

Suzannah March 21, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Hi Jennifer :) I’ve lived in the same Australian town for more than four years, but I’d still need to do research to write a book about it. There are just so many things that are foreign to me here. Love Google Earth!

Bruce March 21, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Second the motion for Google Earth. I’ve got 4 novels set mainly in Burbank and North Hollywood (just north of Los Angele, CA). I’ve lived in the area many years.

When I needed another fairly close location, I chose Pasadena. I lived nearby in the late ’70s. I wanted a quiet, dead-end street so popped up Google Maps and found one. Maps can show terrain and Earth can show it even better.

All still Southern Californian, but it was an excellent base.

If we wrote only “what we knew,” it would be a pretty hard ride. Lots of locations aren’t very exciting in themselves, so we have to delve into the culture. Now that can get interesting.

Suzannah March 21, 2011 at 8:03 pm

You’re right—everyone should strength the breadth of their own experience when writing. But then, as a Canadian, it would be easier for me to research and write a novel set in the U.S. (proximity, similarity of culture and language, etc.) than it would be to write one set in Japan. I don’t think I’d be up for the latter! We can still choose unknown places to set our books without having to go across the world. Of course, its great that some people are up for the challenge.

Penny March 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Thanks for such a thorough post. I just discovered your blog and can’t wait to read more. I’m thinking of writing a post on a similar subject in the future for my new blog. Could I quote you or link to this post? Thanks again!

http://missgoodonpaper.blogspot.com/

Suzannah March 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Absolutely, Penny! Feel free to quote from, or link to, any of the posts on the blog. Thanks for reading!

Sharon Ricklin Jones March 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Great blog Suzannah!

I do write about places I’ve never been to, and Google street view has been a life-saver! I can “drive” down the roads that I wish to describe, and see what the terrain looks like. I use Google for all my research, including dialects of specific places, the types of restaurants in the areas, and even the motels/hotels.
I’ve used the Amtrak site to get specific train routes and various airlines to make sure my characters are not boarding planes that really never take off or land in a particular city.

One of my pet peeves is writers NOT utilizing any of the research avenues that are available these days. How hard is it to Google anything?

One of my hubby’s favorite movies has a huge blooper that drives me insane. “The Fugitive” Now, I grew up in Milwaukee, and I know what’s there and what’s not. In a scene at the police station, one of the cops is musing about a phone call they just received from Richard Kimble, in which they heard the sound of an elevated train in the background. The cop says, “Well, let’s see…Chicago has an EL, Milwaukee has an EL…”
Except that it DOESN”T!!! Every time dh watches that movie I go a little more nuts!!

And that is exactly why I agree with your whole blog. I do not want to drive any of my readers nuts!

Have a great week!
Sharon :)

Suzannah March 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Oh, that’s funny, Sharon! I can imagine how irritating that would be considering it would have been a very simple fact to check.

There ARE a lot of easy research tools we can use today, so not using them is definitely doing a disservice to our stories and our readers. Thanks!

E.J. Apostrophe March 22, 2011 at 10:54 am

Great post…This can be a challenge yet the only way to grow as a writer is to experience new avenues and to explore. Writing about places one hasn’t been will take diligience and if there is a mistake, learn from this and move on (especially if your novel is already out…what are you going to do? Ask for a recall based on one mistake?)

I like your idea about creating your own city…who is going to argue with your imagination? LOL

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:26 am

Exactly! Mary Lawson’s “Crow Lake” takes place in a fictional town in northern Ontario. The town is completely made up, but she gets the general details of the region right to make it plausible. Probably saved her a lot of grief in researching!

Curvy Jones March 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I always ask people who live in those cities for inside information, like where a person who lives in X city would hang out on the weekend. I also look for blogs of people who live where I want my story set and see what places they mention. Often, to avoid “they don’t serve x at that place, you don’t know what you’re talking about!!!” syndrome, I will combine the characteristics of a few places and invent a new, fictional place.

I am a stickler for making things realistic, so running it through people who live there is a best bet for me.

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:27 am

Yes, first-hand experience from locals is better than research!

Jim H March 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Good topic, Suzannah. While modern technology makes it possible to “visit” places virtually, I’d much rather go in person, though it’s not always feasible. My wife and I visited Scotland & England in 2002 to research for my novel, “Moe.” I’d like to suggest a few things for those who “must see to appreciate”:
1. A given: take lots of pictures and notes (sounds, smells, things the camera doesn’t pick up, etc.).
2. Collect brochures for their pictures and info (though much is available now on the internet).
3. Talk to as many people as possible, not only to gain info, but to hear the cadence and syntax of their speech. (Exceedingly important if you’re going to have lots of dialog.)
4. Use public transportation, if possible. Easier to take pictures and notes if you’re not doing the driving. (I learned the hard way.)
5. Exchange email addresses with those who can provide info at a later date and perhaps give your draft a review for authenticity. (Proved extremely valuable to me.)
6. Don’t try to squeeze in a vacation, or do your research first, then vacation later.
7. Write about it as soon as you can (on location, if possible, and have locals read it).

I hope this will help someone who’s considering a visit on locale for their story. As a professional pilot, a pet peeve of mine is reading an aviation scene in which it’s obvious the writer did little or no research. If any of your readers have aviation scenes they’d like vetted, I’ll be happy to help as time permits. They can contact me at [email protected]. Many thanks again for your work.

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:27 am

Thanks for these great tips, Jim! I’m sure there are some writers out there who will greatly benefit from them!

Dreams_link_didy March 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Thank you very much for your answer.

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:28 am

You’re welcome! Thanks for asking the question. Seems a lot of writers are interested in this topic!

franb March 23, 2011 at 12:07 am

OMG! I have been struggling with this very concept since last week and taking time away from the actual writing. I have been told by some that using a real location is much better when writing a novel than creating a fictional one, even if it’s set in an existing region. Do you think this is true? I am researching the real area but am so afraid that I’ll make a misstep because I don’t live there and I’m spending waaay too long on the research process. Please help. Thanks.

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:31 am

I don’t know if it’s “much better” to use a real location or not. I suppose it depends on what type of story you’re writing. A crime thriller might seem more realistic if set in New York or Chicago than in a fictional metro. But, say, in the instance of women’s fiction set in a small town, I think a fictional town would do just as well as a real one.

franb March 24, 2011 at 2:50 am

Thank you, Susannah. I think that’s what I will do.

James March 23, 2011 at 1:40 am

If I write about a location that is unfamilar to me, I reserach characterictics of the natives and nuances of the location. I read travel magazines. And Online I google information about peoples dialog.

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:32 am

All good strategies!

Foisttoni March 23, 2011 at 1:59 am

While most of my characters and their stories are from my native NYC … my sign off on my blog is fOIS In The City as we consider NY THE City … like Chicago is Second City.

No matter how much I know, even about NY, I also use Google live search to find just the right building on the right block. I also use people who were born in another place since one of my characters travels. Use Google search and live search … and when in doubt … leave it out.

I have found the most friendly people from Medical Examiners in Brooklyn to famous doctors in Iowa, salvage experts in Wisconsin and the list goes on. They have filled out questionnaires for me, and most respond to my email or phone calls.

The piece about NYC was spot on and it makes us crings like chaulk on a blackboard. It’s almost as bad as a phony Brooklyn or NY Italian accent on commercials or cop shows. With all the starving actors, they can’t find the real deal?

I always love your posts. Thanks for finding more info for us to use. :)

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:33 am

You’re right, even in our own towns/cities we might still need to do some research. There’s always someone who knows those details better than we do, so it pays to be sure!

Julie Duffy March 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I love the idea of email interviews. After email, try phone, to really pick up on the rhythms of how people speak.

I’m from Scotland but live in the US. I endure people doing Mike Myers impersonations all day long when trying to ‘sound Scottish’. Even when the accent is fair, the intonation, the rhythm, the way we swap words around, the words we use, are all wrong. (We don’t say “where are you from?” we say “where do you stay?” but in my part of Scotland we don’t say “we’ll no go there” like Brigadoon Scots…)

Sorry, that turned into a rant ;)

Suzannah March 24, 2011 at 2:36 am

I can imagine how annoying that would be! People say Canadians say “oot” for “out” and “aboot” for “about,” but I think locals from my hometown say “oat” and “a-boat.” We say “we’re going to camp” instead of “we’re going to the cottage.” The accents and lingo change from northern to southern Ontario, so imagine the diversity from coast to coast!

Andrea March 25, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Thanks so much for this post! I have several ideas for books set in other countries. Being a stickler for details but not having the money to GO right now, I find the research to be a difficult hurdle.

One thing I’d add is to use not just novels, but memoirs. They’re real, but they’re full of the same details a writer would want to capture in a book. I’ve found them very helpful.

Travis Johnson April 15, 2011 at 12:26 am

My favourite Canadian/Australian cultural misunderstanding involves the Canadian chain store Roots, particularly it’s childrenswear department.

You see, in Australia, to “root” something is to have sexual intercourse with it. And the childrenswear department is called “Roots Kids.”

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