In my current work in progress I’m writing about a place I’ve never been to, and it has been a challenge! But even though doing research added extra time to the process, I actually had fun learning along the way. I consider myself a life-long learner, and I do have a fair amount of wanderlust within me. I love to travel and learn about new places. So when matters such as a global pandemic, and astronomical gas and flight prices get in the way of travel, I turn to my imagination when writing my books, as well as the good ‘ol internet.
Here are my top five tips for writing about a location that you’ve never visited.
1. Utilize a Variety of Online Sources
It’s nothing groundbreaking to say that you’ll need to conduct copious amounts of online research to describe a place you’ve never been. Pretty much anything you want to know about a place can be found somewhere online. My tip is to ensure you go beyond just a few websites.
- Go to the official town/city website to get facts about the area
- Visit blogs from people who live there and write about something unique to the area, or find travel bloggers who have visited and written about it
- Read Wikipedia articles on landmarks, events, or noteworthy history about the area
- Look on YouTube for videos of the location. Seeing the area in video will help tremendously when describing it.
- Read local news sites
- Check out Facebook groups and/or events to get a glimpse of local happenings and what people do for fun
- Look at the local non-chain restaurant websites to understand the popular food and drink in the town
- Take note of unique museums, parks, or activity centers in the area to get a sense of what people and families do there for fun
2. Talk to Someone Who Lives/Has Lived in the Location of Your Story
There’s nothing like getting a first-hand account from someone who lives in the location of your story, has previously lived, or at the very least, has visited. They can tell you the things that one can only experience when being there in person. They might know the short cut trail that locals take to the beach. They could share the idiosyncrasies of the town, such as why many houses are painted in a certain style, or local myths and legends that people discuss. Most importantly, they will be able to describe the atmosphere and vibe of the place.
3. Get Scientific and Authentic
Even though you are writing fiction, you want to ensure certain factual details when referring to places or things that really exist. Being accurate builds credibility and respect. And this doesn’t only apply to the actual location where you story takes place; it also means accuracy around general knowledge.
For instance, if you are mentioning that your character is on a beach in Oregon in July and looking up at the night sky and viewing a constellation, make sure that constellation would be visible at that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. If you got it wrong would anyone notice? Maybe not. But chances are that someone reading your book actually lives in or near that location, or is a astronomy nut, etc, and they might be irritated or distracted from the story when noticing your mistake.
It’s also a good idea to regularly check out what the weather is doing in the area to understand the typical climate as well as extreme weather events.
One of my absolute favorite things to do when researching a place is to look at it on Google Earth. You get a feel for the topography, the vegetation and ground cover, and the distance between points. If your characters are in Iceland and you fail to mention the abundance of moss, lichen, and lava rock and instead talk about forests, you will lose some people who know very well what Iceland is like. Also, if you are referencing your characters traveling between locations, you want to ensure you are citing the correct time or miles it would take to get there.
4. Create an Image Board for Visual Inspiration
A lot of authors like to create a vision board or creative collage that represents their book, and I’m one of them. The images help to further transport me into my story world, and also spark new ideas. Naturally, Pinterest is great for this type of board. But those boards can get bloated fast, so some people like to create smaller collages in Canva or similar and then share them on social media to let potential readers in on the theme.
If you have writer’s block, open up that vision board and soak it in. It will likely help to get the creative juices flowing.
5. Uncover Local Dialect or Slang
When writing my novel, Sparks at Sea, which takes place in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, I discovered there’s a unique dialect spoken there. Between websites listing slang and sayings, and YouTube videos explaining the origin of the sayings, I soon had a list to which to refer when I wanted my characters to speak the local dialect. If you have a contact who has lived in the location, check in with them to verify the dialect and slang you found on the internet.
Be judicious about when you use slang and unique dialect though, you don’t want to overdo it and have it be annoying or tough to read. It should be peppered in and used as the locals would, at the right time and relevant to the situation. Ensure you explain what the slang means in some manner through the dialogue, the character’s thoughts, or the description. It’s pretty fun to incorporate local dialect, and makes your story more memorable.
It’s a challenge to write about a place you haven’t been to, but it’s definitely doable. Plus, by the time you’re done with your book you will probably want to visit the place where your story takes place. I know that I’ve added Newfoundland and Labrador to my travel list!