When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online with the help of the internet. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.

The first case that comes to mind is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.

It’s a hugely ambitious novel, however, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)

When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

Even if you knew nothing about the writer, it’s clear from the outset she really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.

But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.

When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.

However, I’m not going to name the person because they live a little closer to home! (Cough.) Anyway, the second author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.

As it happened, I’d never visited the European city even though I’d done a ton of research on it, so I was disappointed by the lack of detail.

I felt this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since there’s something called street lights, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.

I felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.

Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.

When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book. Not secondary and background locations. Though it’s still possible to give a stronger sense of place even when it occupies fewer pages.

But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?

In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something of the day to day life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.

If you’re of the Dan Brown school of novel writing, you might well want to include famous places a tourist would visit on a trip to Paris or Florence, etc. It even makes for an interactive experience since your reader can go off and visit the locations in the book – especially if your books are that famous!

But if you’re after something more realistic and low key, you need to leave the tourist track behind. Because it’s what’s off the beaten track that captures the reality of a place. The side streets, the small cafes, the places far away from tourists. Especially if your characters aren’t tourists in the first place.

I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there. To ignore it is a mistake. Especially if you’re the kind of writer who sees locations as characters in their own right.

When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

I’m not suggesting you write long descriptive passages about your locations. The modern reader’s attention span can sometimes struggle with novels from the 1990s let alone further back. No, readers don’t want to read a lot of descriptive passages, but they do appreciate a strong sense of place. After all, many read to escape to places they’ve never visited.

Of course, in a lot of novels, location is somewhat less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar locations, try not to leave your reader feeling that one location is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.