How to Research Locations for Writing

Courtesy of Photo Morgue

Courtesy of Photo Morgue

We’ve all heard the old adage to write what you know, but seriously, how boring would that be? I want to learn just as much from writing as I do from reading. Although my first book, Denim & Diamonds, is set in Missouri, my second book is set in Maine. I’ve never been to Maine. Now, before anyone writes to me and points out every error in any of my books, let me point out that I write fiction. Sometimes I take creative license with exactly where things are or how they look. That said, I want the feel of my settings to come across to my readers, and I do research to be as accurate as possible.

For instance, here’s an excerpt from Fatal Impulse:

They drove down Main Street, rounded a curve and the harbor appeared before them. Tall masts sprung up from the boats like a forest of toothpicks, and white sails billowed in the salty breeze. As they turned into the parking lot, Andi was blown away by the number of cars already there. Parking would be at a premium after the tourists arrived after Memorial Day, but early May was still quiet. She drove down three aisles before she found a parking space.

Not lots of detail, but I used the senses of sight and smell, and incorporated the mention of tourists to give the idea of it being a touristy-area.

If you are writing about an area that you have not personally visited, there are lots of resources to draw upon.

  • People. Let folks know what you’re writing about and likely someone you know knows someone who is from there, or has visited there. Talk to them.
  • Books. Tourism books are great, but also pick up fictional books set in that area.
  • Google Earth. This is invaluable. You can actually “drive” the route you are talking about to see what the area is like.
  • Reviews. To include authentic details, read reviews of restaurants and shops in the area. You’ll pick up on all sorts of little details, like local specialties.

Word of warning: do your research, don’t wing it.

(as an aside: I read a book years ago by a woman from New Hampshire. Her book was set in Missouri. Her character stepped out of her motel room and looked “south at the Ozark Mountains.” This was mentioned several times in the book, about looking south at the mountains. I was acquainted with the writer, so I emailed with what I hoped was a helpful note about not being able to see the Ozarks from Kansas City, in case she decided to write another book set in Missouri. She sent back a snippy email that she was entirely capable of looking at a map and that the mountains should be clearly visible from Kansas City. Um, okay. I haven’t emailed her again, nor have I bothered to see if she wrote another book.)