July 2, 2014

Writing Club Wednesday: Five Ways Travel Can Help You Research A Novel

As many of you know, I’ve been lucky enough to have been traveling the world for the past year. (I just got home, actually—hello, USA!) 

During part of this trip, I got to do some research for my upcoming book, THE CONSPIRACY OF US. It’s an international thriller, which means my characters spend a good deal of time running from country to country and landmark to landmark, following clues and evading bad guys. The two major international settings in this first book are Paris and Istanbul, and I was fortunate enough to have visited both cities before, and to spend even more time in Paris this time around, and also to spend some time in the settings for future books. (No spoilers!) 

Let me preface this by saying that YES! Of course you can research without traveling to each location in your book. Travel can be expensive and inconvenient and is just not in the cards for a lot of authors (and that’s if it’s even possible—as far as I know, GRRM has never been to Winterfell!). It’s great to read books that feature your setting. Or to watch documentaries. To listen to the music from the area. To Google the events going on there at the time your character will be visiting. Google maps, and especially street view, are incredible tools for writers--a little creepy, but incredible. There are tons of ways you can make a setting come alive that don't involve an airplane. 

But as much research as there is to be done from the comfort of your couch, there are some ways in which travel research just can’t be beat. Here are five of them. 

Looking out over Paris through the mesh around the Eiffel Tower. If I hadn't been there, I might not have realized this wire mesh existed!

1. Details. I could have seen from photos that there are tulips lining the walkway up to the Hagia Sophia, but I never could have grasped the heady combination of carpet vendors in their long robes hollering to be heard over modern music blaring from a car’s speakers as it cruised down Istanbul’s biggest thoroughfare. I might have realized it would be windy at the top of the Notre Dame bell towers, but I might not have understood quite the impact the crush of tourists has on your ability to move around. 

2. Senses. The smell of lamb roasting on a spit. The unique and disgusting feel of humid air when you walk by an open sewer. Not all of it is good, but all of it is useful to help your setting feel more well-rounded. Senses other than sight are especially easy to overlook in a setting you don’t know well, and there’s nothing quite like being there. 

3. Logistics. Is that staircase actually inaccessible to the public? Can the character not sit on the railing of that bridge, because it’s fenced off? No, you’ll never be able to get every detail exactly right, but the more logistically correct you can make a story, the easier it will be for a reader to imagine herself there. 

4. Inspiration. Though you might be able to approximate the rest of these things with research, it’s very hard to understand the feel of a place never having been there. I spent countless hours just being Avery in each city we visited. How would this specific character react to this place? What would she notice first? What would keep her attention? Not only did this make me pay attention to my surroundings, it helped me understand the character even better. 

5. New Ideas. This particular book might be set in Paris and Istanbul, but I so very much want to write a story with the backdrop of fish and brine that comes from being near the sea (and which somehow manages to be pleasant rather than gross). I want to have a character eat what she thinks might be chicken feet, but she’s not really sure. I want to have a character stand at the edge of a desert and look out as far as she can and see nothing but sand. Even when you’re not writing, travel is the best inspiration there is. 

Not that I’m biased or anything. 


Annie Sullivan said...

I couldn't agree more. I think traveling opens up new worlds and is a great way to get ideas for new stories. Thanks fo sharing!

Jaime Morrow said...

Wow! These travels of yours sound amazing. You're so right about all of the details that you gather simply by travelling and researching. I've been to the settings for two of my stories, but I'd love to return and gather more details. Great post, Maggie! :-)

Vanessa said...

This is a great post! There are so many things about traveling that make it worthwhile, and so many places I want to put characters in (and therefore myself)! Your descriptions are great, and it looks like you had an amazing trip!

Sarah Hipple said...

Wow. You've convinced me.

Although I'm good without trying the chicken feet. I'm willing to try many oddities, but I just cannot imagine a scenario in which chicken feet seems delicious. Who knows, though, maybe with the right setting and senses activated even chicken feet could seem like a good idea.

Also: I loved your (and your husband's) travel blog. You should add a link to it.

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