Research

  • Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Novel

    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.

  • Researching Your Novel’s Locations Online

    Research distant locations using online tools like Google Earth, Street View, Estate Agents, travel and genealogical sites.

    The chances are you already use some of these resources for location research, but if you don’t, you’re missing out.

    So, let’s imagine you live in the US, but you’re writing a novel set in Scotland, or partly set in Scotland. You’d love to fly over and check out your locations, but you can’t afford it or have too many other commitments.

    Even if your novel is historical, you can still use these resources. However, it goes without saying that a contemporary location is better researched using, say, Google Street View. Google Earth will tell you a lot about topography.

    Using Estate Agents/Realtors

    And of course, estate agent Sites (realtors), will let you see both the exterior and interior photos of buildings. If you’re writing an historical, many of these buildings will be too new, and others will be former townhouses and terraced houses redeveloped into a set of apartments. It’s worth checking out any details on this given by the estate agent site.

    If you’re looking for a fancy historic building in the Highlands, you should find something fairly easily. I’m not talking about castles, though you never know what’s up for sale.

    Check out any details regarding when the building was constructed or renovated. Check the exterior and interior photos – some buildings have a lot of old features still intact. If there’s a property prospectus, download it, and keep it on file.

    Check out the area on Google Street View. ‘Google drive’ around the area. Then have a look at the area from above using Google Maps – you can get an idea of where the area is located in relation to sea, lochs, mountains, etc.

    Of course, you could always take a building from one area, and, using it as a model for your location, move it to another, and add in your own fictional details.

    All of this applies to other locations in other countries. Have a novel partly set in Paris? Check out property sites, Google Street View and Google Maps there too.

    Don’t forget YouTube and photo sites

    This then brings me to YouTube and photo sites, where there is a wealth of visual information linked to different areas.

    If you want to set part of your story onboard a train running on Scotland’s West Highland Line (considered to be one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world), go over to YouTube and check out any videos posted by tourists and others.

    You can put together your own inspiration or location board – on Pinterest, for example.

    And, remember, Pinterest is a huge visual search engine, so if you’re looking for images for inspiration or research, that’s the best place to start.

    Genealogical records – a hidden resource

    If your novel is historical, it might be worth checking out the likes of census and parish records to get an idea of the people who lived in an area at a particular time, their occupations, how many people lived in the building, their relationships to one another, etc. This kind of information usually comes up during genealogical searches. And if you are interested in genealogy, Scotland’s People is the best site to check out. You can also check out old post office directories.

    Additionally, you might find local history groups or local historians you can contact – you might even find them on Twitter or Facebook.

    Check out local writers

    It’s also worth checking out writers and books from your location, to get an idea of how people speak. Some writing groups have websites, and YouTube can provide you with recorded videos of readings and poetry slams, etc.

    Then there’s local newspapers, and local radio, etc.

    In 2020, it’s easier than ever to research your novel’s locations online. Just be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of endlessly fascinating facts and places. Researching the background of a novel can be too addictive. Never lose sight of the end goal – a well-researched book with a strong sense of place.

    There’s another reason to research your novel’s locations online if you can’t visit in person. Here’s what can go wrong if you include locations you know well alongside places you hardly know at all. Check out this post!