Writing about a location – Do you have to go there?

One of the most important aspects of your writing is the setting. You want to accomplish a couple of things when you write about a particular place. First, you want to give your reader a sense of the place you are writing about in a descriptive way that transports them there. There are books I have read that have made me feel that I was experiencing the place even if I hadn’t been there. One of my favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, made me feel the humidity of Alabama. The Shining gave me a chill through Stephen King’s description of the unrelenting winter around the Overlook Hotel.

There are authors that excel at describing their surroundings. Dean Koontz is especially astute at describing indigenous vegetation in California, where many of his books are set. In his Odd Thomas series, the fictional California desert town of Pico Mundo comes to life and becomes a character in the story.

Koontz is especially good at using setting as a character, but he is also known for over-describing elements of the setting sometimes taking a page to describe a particular type of tree.

Using the familiar:

syracuseI have lived in two places over the course of my life. I lived in the city of Syracuse, New York, in the center of the state, for the first 33 years of my life. The city is known for its lakes, its cloudy, rainy weather (second only to Seattle) and its snow. Syracuse and Buffalo, New York are usually contenders for the snowiest cities in the United States each year. The area also has some of the most beautiful summer weather in the country even though there are precious few of those days.

Jacksonville Florida Skyline

About 22 years ago, I moved to Jacksonville, Florida in a state that has a reputation for beaches, sunshine, tourists and embarrassing news stories. All of those things exist in Jacksonville except for the tourism. The cost of living is low, the weather is beautiful and I haven’t had to shovel snow since we moved.

It makes sense that my first book, Frankly Speaking, featured a main character that grew up in Syracuse and, as an adult, moved to Jacksonville, Florida. I knew both locations very well and used my experience to describe them in the book. This experience gave credibility to the setting.

In my day job, I’m ‘lucky’ enough to travel all over the United States. I travel 45 weeks per year and have been to 46 of the 50 United States. Very often I spend 2-3 months traveling to each location and this has given me the opportunity to explore many U.S. cities and use them as settings or file away details for future stories and books.

Using Technology:

When I wrote my second book, Let Me Be Frank, I had the urge to explore the life of one of my secondary characters. Samuel ‘Fat Sam’ Monreaux is an entrepreneur from New Orleans that also settled in Jacksonville. Part of the book involves the main characters driving around the U.S. Gulf Coast with significant action taking place in New Orleans. I had been to New Orleans a couple of times, but not enough to know the area well. This is where the Internet and services like Google Street View came in handy. I was able to get an aerial and street view of the French Quarter’s police headquarters and use it in the story.

Because I travel so much, I’ve started to record interesting places with both my cell phone (as a camera) and a little notebook where I can describe important details like sounds, sights and smells for use in future stories.

How about you? Do you invent locations? Use locations from your own experience? Do you travel and research locations? Please share your tips and tricks.

61 thoughts on “Writing about a location – Do you have to go there?

  1. I base my Amanda Travels books on my travels. The latest book, Amanda in New Mexico, is based on a trip I took to Taos and area three years ago. I like to visit the location, take notes and lots of pictures, then write the adventure around it. I have been pleased that the reviews have been favourable and many have said they felt the description of the area was right on. I think it helps to visit the location first then write about it.

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  2. I use a mixture of locations I have visited, adaptated from real places, and others I have completely made up. When I wrote The Last Train from Bedford, I visited Bedford by train several times to get a feel for the area and the local train service. I took pictures and made notes about sights, sounds and smells. I’ve also used streetview to study the area around the setting when I needed to check something I’d missed. Since then, I have been making notes about various places for future use, and started a series of ‘setting the scene’ posts on my blog. In each one, I use my notes to write about the location/setting from a character’s point of view. The first one of these is live: Setting the scene: A 4✮ hotel lobby, here https://tessmgarfield.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/scene-4star-hotel-lobby/ I’d love to know what you think.

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  3. Great post, and as I’m from Watertown and my husband went to SU, I’m always interested in anything about Syracuse. I have set all my books in places I’ve lived in or visited. I like to use travel guides when I have a question about a certain place. I like to make up towns, but I base them on places that really exist.

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  4. Using Street View for location research is a fabulous idea, Don.
    It’s an interesting topic. I do a ton of research for everything. Even so, if a location is truly significant to my story, I’m not comfortable using one in which I have not spent significant time. I follow old advice, “Write what you know.” I do invent locations sometimes too, but if it is a fictional place within a real place (fictional city, real state), I still research the wider area, and at least have significant experience in the state.


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    • There is often no substitute for immersing yourself. Using New Orleans as a setting, for instance, almost demands that you soak in the smells (good and bad) and the food and drink before you can have credibility.


  5. For the most part, I tend to draw on settings I know, tweak them a bit and fictionalize them.
    When I wrote my Point Pleasant series, however, I made two different trips to the actual town and the places (like the TNT) that I mention in the books. It was amazing to do onsite research and I believe that helped enrich the stories.

    That behind me, I’m back to fictionalizing again,drawing heavily on those areas I know–Pennsylvania and the eastern seaboard.

    It’s amazing that you’ve been to 46 of the 50 states! You have so many places to draw on for your settings.

    Great post, Don!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. There are some states,like California, New Mexico, and Minnesota that have made lasting impressions on me for potential settings. Urban settings like Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and, of course, New York, are always great settings.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I put boots on the ground whenever possible … but when you’re dealing with historical fiction, sometimes location names, street names, etc., change. That means depending on primary source like maps from on-line archives, etc. Like you, my day job affords me some business travel opportunities and I take in whatever local color I’m able to during my off hours.

    Great article!

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  7. Great post, Don. My two series are set in places I know fairly well. The Riverbend series is set in a fictional town “just up the road a piece” from where I live. So I’m able to draw on my day to day experiences to bring that one to life. And because I’ve canoed and hiked the area extensively, I have a decent knowledge of wildlife and habitat to draw on. My Wake-Robin Ridge series is set in the mountains of North Carolina, my favorite place on earth (so far), and one which I’ve visited many times. So I have some knowledge of that area, too, especially the habitat and wildlife, again.

    I’ve yet to set a book in a location I’m not familiar with, but even with the ones I do know pretty well, I use Google extensively. How else would I be able to plop down my fictional city or mountain ridge, without dropping it right on top of something that already exists? 😀 I rely on Google for settings, to check local laws, to look at the history of real towns in the area and check dates of events nearby, and so much more. I’d be lost without it, but I confess that I haven’t often looked at street views. I’m definitely going to add that to my research tools. Thanks for the idea! I’m reblogging this on The Write Stuff, too. 🙂

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  8. I’ve used Google Earth to ‘travel’ from Mwanza on Lake Victoria to the Tanzanian-Rwandan border on the Kagera River for a road journey that two of my characters are taking. It was great for getting ideas of what would happen on route, including a ferry crossing and passing an open-cast gold mine as well as coffee plantations and small market towns where they could stop for ‘fast food’.
    I’d been on a lot of African overland journeys, but never in this region, so using satellite and bird’s eye views of the route was invaluable as to the type of terrain travelled through on a virtual trip. They also have a lot photographic commentary on GE which was also great for ideas on the ambience and local colour. Highly recommended for writers short on time and/or cash! 😀

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  9. Very relevant topic for me, Don. I’m immersed in research for my next book which is set in Kenya. No, I’ve never been there, so this is like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim. Scary! But not new to me. Some of my books are set in places I have lived in or visited, such as Chicagoland, various Texas locals, County Kerry in Ireland, and Tampa, Florida. However, my current series, Romancing the Guardians, requires the seven Guardians to be scattered around the globe for safety reasons. One book, Capturing Gabriel, is set in the mountains of Colombia. Another, Beguiling Delilah, takes the characters on a whirlwind journey from Paris to the Cote d’Azur in the south of France. And, as I said, the next book, Tempting Adam, is set in Kenya – not in the bustling capital, Nairobi, but rather in the northern desert county of Marsabit, where nomadic herders dominate. Finding details about their lives and the country has kept me busy for the past two months. Most of my research is done on the internet, but I always purchase several books on the place I’m investigating. As you said above, accuracy is vital when writing about real places. Of course, I do take some literary license at times. After all, I am writing fiction.

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  10. If I can’t go to a location, I travel there in my mind, via the Internet. Then I use just enough detail to bring a setting to life. As you mentioned, Don…most of the time, less is more.

    Great post, as always. Pinned & shared. 🙂

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  11. My epic fantasy series involves totally invented locations, giving me complete licence to create the landscape to fit my stories.
    On the other side of the coin, when I conceived my urban fantasy series there was no question the setting would be the Scottish Highlands. I’m lucky enough to own a house there, in an area I absolutely adore, and am continually exploring.
    I have used street maps of Inverness to help with the city based scenes, but out in the wilds, all the places featured in my books are real, and I include live links in the text leading to either information sites, or photographs I have taken.
    Readers seem to love the ‘interactive’ nature of the stories.

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  12. Well, because I write fantasy and historical fantasy, I’d say it would be very hard for me to visit the place. Even my historical series set in Chicago. I’ve never been to Chicaco, but even if I went, I know I wouldn’t find the 1920s setting I’m looking for. Most of that place has gone long ago.

    So I have to base my settings on primary resources (again the Internet is my friend, here, as it is for so many writers), like diaries, novels written in the period and especially vintage pictures (my absolute favourite). Because I write the 1920s, silent films are also very very useful.
    Then experience is our best friend. Anything we cannot know for sure, we can imagine based on what we did experience.
    I’m a champion of historical accuracy, but in the end, it’s all about how real it feels to the reader.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. My first novel centred around Dover in Kent (where I have been but don’t know well) and Holland (where I haven’t been), as well as a totally made up location under the sea! Google Earth was so helpful for me. It made it so easy to get a feel for location, plus looking at travel info, etc. One comment on that book from a reviewer was that it had a foreign feel to it … I couldn’t think of higher praise! My second book, I based on the Forest of Dean, which I’ve only ever driven through. One reader who lives in the area said it felt like I had walked down the main street of the village with them! So, while it’s great to visit in-the-flesh if you can, it’s not essential, so long as you do your research. Thanks for this great post, Don! 🙂

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  14. Pingback: Curated Content ~ October 13 | Story Empire

  15. My books are set in Maine and I go there every summer to research new places and sites. Then I use aspects of what I see and learn – sometimes a real place, sometimes something combining various places. I feel like I’m on safer grounds!

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  16. I mostly place my settings in different places than where I live. Given that most of them are placed in a different time too, even what I know didn’t look like that/ exist. So my research is based most of all on books and internet. Since Internet, we have lots of maps and youtube movies which help a lot, besides a wider array of written documentation.

    For the novels I have published, it doesn’t help me that i was once to Venice since my story happens around 1050 (one of them) and it helps a little with the 1800 one. Research remains the cornerstone. Again, I have never been to Scandinavia (except Denmark, which isn’t part of my story). The Isle of Froj I am mentioning is invented. It could be any small fjord islet around the Norwegian seashore, because things change names, but most places I am writing about aren’t invented.

    I have never been to the US either (nor Precolumbian Mexico) but I researched about the road to West from Boston till Mississippi River, and I found in Greater St. Louis area a town which might have been settled by my characters – Venice, IL. A little up North, another existing little town, Roxana, Missouri, became part of my story. And since I am writing about the foundation and growing of Venice, in parrallel with the growing of St. Louis, I had read a lot about the area, both books, articles and maps.

    The novel I am working at now (to be published in late winter/ spring) happens in the 1970s in Arizona, at the border with Mexico, in mirror-twin towns named the same, Nogales. For this google maps helped a lot.

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