Write what you know.
All well and good until a story requires your imagination to travel somewhere you’ve never been. For today’s purposes, we’ll stick to the known world, for fantasy and science fiction writers have their own tips and tricks for setting and location. My aim today is to share some of my best advice for writing a location you’ve never visited.
We are lucky to be writing in a small world. Travel is far easier for us than it was for our forebears, even a century gone. But complications arise as well. The world is small, and people know it well, so faking a real place can be a tricky endeavor.
Some time ago, we have you this image as part of a Red Writing Hood prompt. My response to that prompt was the seed for my story Valentine, which was included in Metaphysical Gravity. Valentine is set in New Orleans, with the main characters’ meet-cute occurring in this very location, a block away from St. Louis Cathedral, on Chartres St, just outside Jackson Square.
If you have the means, go.
This one’s a no brainer. Me? I don’t have the means to hop a flight to the Big Easy for a few days of immersion-style research. More’s the pity.
If you can rustle up a native of your location, do.
I have never had the privilege to visit New Orleans. Twice now, my plans were foiled. I did, however, share a college apartment and a dear friendship with a native of the city. From Lizzie I learned the cadence of the language, the flavor of having grown up in a city soaked in history, spice, and jazz. Perhaps that’s why I’m repeatedly drawn back there in my imagination.
Keep it proportional.
There’s no quick and easy fix. If you are writing a novel set in an unfamiliar place, you have a lot of research to do. A short story, however, must keep tight focus on the events and the characters. For me to set my story where I did, I needed to have a sense of the area where the photograph was taken, and then build my story’s world from there as needed. In the end, I needed a home for my protagonist, and a bar for her friends to congregate in.
The internet is your friend.
I researched these with Google maps of New Orleans, including street views, endless photo galleries of the city in various weathers and times of day, searches of average temperatures for the time of year, and in my story’s case, the actual probability of snow. To establish Val’s home, I learned a bit about what her salary might be, and from that what she might be able to afford, being a frugal woman, in terms of a home. From there, it was fun to use real estate company websites to search for properties and neighborhoods that would suit my character both as a person and a homeowner.
Immerse yourself in books, movies, and music.
Look for films set in your time period and city. Read. Soak in the music, cook the food. The more sensory experience you have, the more it will seep into your writing.
How do you research locations for your stories?