One of the questions I get a fair amount is whether or not it’s necessary to travel to a setting in order to write it. It’s a great question, and I’ve sat on panels with other writers who will argue both sides with vehemence. Before I tackle the answer, let me preface it by saying that since I write historical fiction, I CAN’T travel to the settings I write about. I may have been to Paris, but I haven’t been to Paris in 1789. (I have a French Revolution novel that I’d like to write in a dozen years or so.) And post-Haussmann Paris is a very different city. Even 1920s Damascus is not the city it is today.
Naturally, some things endure. Monuments and city walls, castles and canals are often exactly where they’ve always been, and a trip to see them can whisk you back in time and give you a good feel for what the space would have been like once upon a time. Natural landscapes might not have altered much; the tang of sea air and the steamy heat of a rain forest are largely the same. You can still go out on safari in Tanzania or visit the pyramids in Egypt or board a sailing vessel in the Caribbean, and if you have a chance to visit your chosen setting, by all means DO. It’s a wonderful jump-start to the imagination, and you can collect details and sensory impressions that are very difficult to come by otherwise. But is it NECESSARY?
Short answer: no. I maintain that writers are creatures of imagination. If I’m good enough at my job, I should be able to make you believe I’ve been to the moon if I’m writing about a lunar landing party. We put ourselves into fictional worlds ALL THE TIME. It is our job to do so and to make it believable. Budget, time, work demands, family obligations, health–all of these things can prevent you from traveling and many of them have kept me from settings I’d like to have seen. (You can probably guess that given the situation in Syria at present, I did not visit Damascus before writing CITY OF JASMINE.) When I’ve been able to travel for research, I’ve done it–but I’ve also written books set in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Transylvanian Alps, and Kenya, none of which I’ve visited.
So, how do you conjure a place you’ve never been? Here are my favorite tips:
*Start with the kids. In the children’s section of the library you’ll find nonfiction books about every corner of the globe as well as cultural studies and histories. Grab and armful and start reading. You can find food and crafts, flora and fauna, ethnographic information, timelines of events–in short, everything you need to get a very broad, very basic picture of the area you’re studying. Their books also have maps–nice big, simple maps that will give you an overview of a country with major topographical features, seasons, perhaps even agricultural products and ethnic breakdowns.
*Move onto the adult nonfiction. Now that you have a child’s eye view of the place, you can choose which adult nonfiction books will fill in the gaps. (Starting with adult nonfiction is a wonderful idea–it also takes a VERY LONG TIME. These books are often very densely written and very long, great if you have the time to spare, but if you’re writing on a deadline, you might not. You’ll have to triage your research into the stuff that you MUST learn and the stuff that can wait but would be a nice idea and the stuff that isn’t necessary at all. Jumping into the kids’ section first helps narrow your focus to the books that will be most helpful.)
*Don’t forget memoirs. Diaries, letters–wonderful sources of first-hand information as long as you remember there is an inherent bias in all of them. (Yes, there’s an inherent bias in ALL books, but it’s much more apparent in first-person accounts.) My personal jackpot? When I score a memoir from an author who, as a child, lived in the area I’m researching. Writers naturally have a good eye for detail and children notice all kinds of things that grown-ups don’t. They’ll have stories packed with subtle touches that bring a place to life.
*Remember sensory details. It’s the sensory details that bring a setting to life for a reader, so don’t skimp on them. Pillage the research books for mentions of food, animals, fragrances, weather, scenery, materials, music–anything and everything that can lend a touch of reality.
*Ask friends. I didn’t have a chance to go to Africa before writing A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, but I did know several people who had been on safari. They were generous enough to share impressions, memories, photos–all of which was immensely helpful. (Best question to ask? “What is something I’d only know if I’d been there?” That’s how I learned that lions smell like domestic cat pee…)
*Screen documentaries and films. Scour your TV listings, Netflix, PBS site, and library for the keywords associated with your project. You’ll turn up everything from kids’ shows to nature programs to vintage films, all of which can be useful.
*Do the best you can. When I realized I wasn’t going to have time to visit Africa before writing SPEAR, I did everything I could to find at least some sort of similar experience. The best I came up with on short notice was heading down to Florida to visit Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens Tampa. Now, let’s be clear: there is NO substitute for going on safari. Just NONE. But at Animal Kingdom Lodge, I was able to stay in a room that had giraffes and Ankole cattle and zebra drifting around outside. I was able to talk to staff members from Kenya and Tanzania. I interviewed their zoological director who had just returned from one of four trips he takes every year to east Africa. I got to see museum-quality art from all over Africa as well as artifacts from the trips of Martin and Osa Johnson, pioneering nature filmmakers. I got a behind the scenes tour with the cheetah specialist at Busch Gardens and I fed giraffes by hand. At Animal Kingdom, I participated in a special safari that included lunch out of tiffin boxes served at a pavilion overlooking a savannah teeming with wildlife–artificial, yes. Absolutely. But I turned my deck chair out towards the savannah and got to imagine, at least for a little while, what it must be like to experience the real thing. And I stood five feet away from a lion who obligingly roared at me, and in spite of the fences between us, I got to experience the way the roar will reverberate all the way down the spinal column into the ground. Again, in no way do these experiences compare with being there. But they’re something, and something is always better than nothing.
*Immerse yourself. When working out a setting, I have listened to authentic music, cooked traditional dishes, bought soaps and perfumes imported from that country, watched YouTube clips of traditional dances and ceremonies, burned their incense, drunk their tea, read their children’s books, listened to their language, read their native authors, tried their crafts, and worn their fabrics. And if budget is an issue, most of these things are extremely inexpensive, particularly if you put out a call to your friends. People are thrilled to share their travel experiences and their culture. I have been overwhelmed by how generous people have been–and all because I ventured a question or two about something they knew much more about than I did.