A Sense of Place: Writing A Location You’ve Never Visited

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.

nolaPIC.com: In and Around New Orleans &emdash; St. Louis Cathedral New Orleans

Image courtesy of nolapic.com

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?

9 Responses to A Sense of Place: Writing A Location You’ve Never Visited
  1. Valerie
    February 21, 2013 | 6:43 pm

    Cam-after reading your short story, I really had the impression you knew New Orleans well, so good job!

    Ironically, the modern miracle of the internet is one of my best sources for learning about the past. That, and spending as many hours as I can watching old movies and hanging out in thrift stores:)

    Great post-and great advice!

    • Cameron
      February 21, 2013 | 7:46 pm

      Thanks, Valerie. Smoke a mirrors a little. A few key details and a pinch of local flavor. Had I developed the story into a nove? Entirely different story…

      And the thrift stores – you are the queen of that. I see their influence all over your work.

  2. AmyBeth Inverness
    February 21, 2013 | 6:45 pm

    Lately I’ve been working on a series of shorts set on the moon.


    I have several sciency-types I consult to make sure my details are plausible, but beyond that I say “It’s SciFi! I can make up whatever I want!”

    • Cameron
      February 21, 2013 | 7:47 pm

      I think I need to do another one of these for sci-fi/fantasy writers. Can I come looking for a few quotes from you?

  3. shelton keys dunning
    February 21, 2013 | 10:22 pm

    I love world-crafting, be it a real world or an imagined one. My favorite way to attack a real place I’ve never been starts with looking at a map of the area. Tourist boards are a wealth of information if you have the time for them to send it to you. They’ll give you brochures about historical walks or ghost tours or bed and breakfasts that you might not necessarily find in an internet search. For places in Europe, my go-to resource is any of the Europe Through the Back Door series by Rick Steves. Why? Because he travels every year and his information is 100% up to date, and he emphasizes being a temporary resident instead of being a tourist. He’s got hidden gems like the Paris Sewer tour (Yes it exists!). The Eyewitness travel books are cool too because they show you pictures of local cops and other authorities, a close up of currency, maps and interior pictures of museums and such.

    And I’m babbling, sorry. I did warn you that I love world-crafting!

    • Cameron
      February 22, 2013 | 7:09 am

      Shel, your research is always so spot on, you’re ready for noveling!

      Thanks for the tips, and the long comment. We all benefit from your thoughts!

  4. Renee
    February 22, 2013 | 9:06 am

    Research is my downfall. The workinchaos is set over several centuries and different locales. I’ve bookmarked a dozen sites looking for the right clothing, right food, right curses. It is slow going to be sure. But also? Very interesting.

    • Cameron
      February 22, 2013 | 9:23 am

      You know who does that brilliantly? moving through time periods and really immersing without feeling overly academic? Diana Gabaldon. Her Outlander series is full of incredible detail, but oh the *story!*

      • Renee
        February 22, 2013 | 1:41 pm

        Oooh, on my way to learn!