How do you handle writing about places you have never been?

Many times writers find themselves writing about places they haven’t actually been.  It is tricky to pull this off because you never know who may read your story.  The descriptions have to be fairly accurate or else locals may call you on it.  So, how do you ensure that you don’t mess it up?

I’m not sure what authors did before the internet became widespread, other than go through travel books at the library or ask someone who has been to the location.  Yet now days there are many options which don’t require you to leave home.  Googling images of that place can help.  Looking at satellite imagery can give an overall picture and maps provide the basic layout of a city. Yet there is so much more you need and it takes time to get all the information.

My own story mostly takes place in Alaska.  While I did some of the above tricks to learn the terrain, I also looked at travel sites to see what visitors saw when going there.  That gave me impressions from them on what was different about the place compared to the lower forty-eight.  I also found a book written by an Air Force guy stationed there for a year.  He provided  a lot of detail on his time living in the Fairbanks.  He also interacted with the locals enough to make observations I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.  Not to mention he did a lot of native Alaskan activities and recounted his disastrous experiences with them.  I learned what my character should or should not do based on his book, that is for sure!

Many of the things I researched won’t actually appear in my novel, but they will allow me to not make the mistake of saying the wrong thing.  I studied what to do in case of a bear attack.  Apparently the way you handle a brown bear, compared to a black, are entirely different.  I checked on the local vegetation as well.  The irony of this is that I’m not much of one to describe the types of trees and flowers that my character sees.  I’ve always found this tedious in other books and usually skip over it.  Tell me a forest is dense, don’t list every single kind of tree in it.  That is just me, though others enjoy such detail so don’t think you shouldn’t do it if that is your thing.  I’m just not much of one for it.  Despite this, I don’t want to create a scene where certain vegetation/trees would be required and then have some native Alaskan call me on it because such a scene wouldn’t even be possible.  So while you may never see how much I actually studied the matter, it was covered behind the scenes.  It wasn’t pleasant, but I made myself do it.

This same thing goes for local establishments.  I had to check what restaurants were available.  My character may want a McDonald’s cheeseburger, so it was necessary to make sure she could get one.  In fact, I learned that during the winter in Fairbanks you can pull your dog sled up to the drive-thru at McDonald’s to get your burgers and fries.  Certainly not something I would have considered!  Too bad my character is going in the summer or that would have been a fun scene to use!

There are a ton of other things I learned during my research, but these are just a few examples.  I’m curious to hear what you all have done to understand your setting when it is a place you haven’t been.  Feel free to leave comments on the topic.  Your methods may even be helpful to others!

~ by Suzie on October 5, 2011.

18 Responses to “How do you handle writing about places you have never been?”

  1. One of my stories is set in Scotland. I’ve never been there, but I researched the area even looking for pictures in different towns, until I found the one that best fit the description in my mind. I love the power of Google.

  2. Sounds like the perfect excuse to go to a place you’ve never been…

    • I would love to go to Alaska, but the husband refuses. He thinks of the cold (since it often gets to -60 degrees in the winter) and no amount of showing him it gets warm in the summer will change his mind. Maybe someday I will conince him.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I’ll be checking that book out for my story in Alaska soon. 😉 Hehe, I used to write fantasy so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting details right. Now that I write urban fantasy, I use Google maps to get satellite images and basic layout of a city. I even typed in addresses to get approximate travel time between two places. I also try to use real landmarks. So far, my stories have been in Washington state, not too far outside the realm of imagination filling in blanks. I will definitely need more research for Alaska.

    • Yeah, fantasy just requires a lot of imagination since you have to create the whole world for yourself. I’ve heard that can be just as tricky. As for real places, I’ve checked travel times too. Just to be sure. There is one book series (Outlander, I believe) where the author drove me crazy because she got travel times all wrong. She would say they traveled all day by horseback to get 20 kilometers. I knew that was nonsense because I had gone through dense woods, with a heavy load on my back, on foot, and traveled 20 kilometers in less than three hours. Imagine what someone on a horse could do! It happened so frequently that I stopped reading the novel, even though the story itself was good.

  4. I think a declaration to the effect that one has not been to the location he has written about could suffice for making the reader understand the limitations. That I think makes it all the more interesting. They won’t be errors in the real sense but would count as flights of fantasy!
    IMHO 🙂

    • Usually in fiction books the author doesn’t mention they haven’t been to the location they wrote about, but will say so in interviews. I think it’s fairly common for writers to not have visited every place in their story, but it can still be fun to write about. Assuming, of course, they have done the proper research!

  5. Don’t know if it helps but a fellow authoress Norma Budden (who I know from Goodreads) lives up that way… She’s very friendly and chatty and may be happy to help out… This is a page she created about some aspects of living there:

    • I did a quick look at her blog and it does look interesting. Thanks for the tip. The only tricky part is the weather does vary in the north dependent on where you are. From what I’ve read, Anchorage, Alaska has milder weather than Fairbanks. Mostly due to one city neing more inland. Still, it is good to know how people survive in the cold. My character “might” be seeing a bit more of Alaska in book two, which would be during the winter unlike book one, which is in the summer. So some survival info is always good. I will not say more than that, though, as I don’t want to give anything away.

  6. I have here somewhere a SF mag from Russia in the early 80’s. There is a neat story set in australia in it. It features a scene when a fellow rides home from work (his daily routine) on a pushbike – from ballarat to sydney……..

    I still chuckle whenever something reminds me of it 🙂 It wasn’t a terrible story aside from that!

  7. Fiction, by its own definition, is a work of imaginative narration. To me, that means I can make up towns and populate them with made-up establishments and landmarks. For example, you could write about a made-up town in Alaska where people pull up in dog sleds to get burgers and fries without having some reader complain that there’s no such thing in the real town. That said, if I’m writing about a place I’ve never visited, I get a lot of good info from travel and guide books.

    • Oh yes, that is always a good way around having visited a town. I actually like it when authors make up a town for their book. It avoids any mistakes and is fun to imagine it exists! Sometimes using real towns can be a bad thing. For instance, Laurell K. Hamilton uses real locations in her books and initially drove the routes her characters would take in the Anita Blake series. The problem with this is fans figured out the routes and would even go knock on the doors of the houses she picked out for the scenes. Never mind that this was a paranormal series so no vampires would really be living there! She had never intended this and it caused some innocent bystanders some trouble. After finding out, she stopped being so detailed and made up routes that don’t exist so people couldn’t follow them anymore.

  8. The panhandle of Alaska is called “The Banana Belt.” It only gets down to the teens if it’s absolutely clear sky, and that happens seldom. When it does, people bundle up to watch the Northern Lights. Usual, in Juneau, in the ‘depths of winter’ is about 36 degrees days and 28 nights. It’s about three degrees warmer than that, on average, in Ketchikan. Quite a bit of Juneau and most of Ketchikan are built on piers. Many people still make a living panning for gold in both. Flights of stairs climb the mountain, 300 feet or more, to places homes can be built in Ketchikan. People do climb those stairs. It’s a long drive to get up to a home on the mountainside. In Juneau, snow falls as slush. It’s called “snain.” Ketchikan is rainy. Juneau gets a lot of moisture, but it seldom rains, as most people think of it, and streets flood, if it does. It’s heavy mist most of the time and October is the driest month. The airport in Juneau is built on an island across from it, the only place with a strip of ‘flat’ land long enough for it. Taking off is a heart-pounding experience. It’s a steep climb and when the plane gets above the mountains, the wind hits. It’s not uncommon for a downdraft to push a plane down a couple hundred feet. The safety record is incredibly good, because the best pilots in the world fly from Seattle to Juneau and back. International flights land in Yakutat, a town of less than 700 people with, I think, six international flights a day. The best time and most fun way to see the inside passage is take a bedroll and sleep on the deck in the ‘solar lounge’ of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, where the bald eagles winter. The picture saddened me a bit. The Mendenhall Glacier is receding rapidly.

    • Thanks for the info, Sharon! At this time, I have no plans for my character to be anywhere in Alaska but the Fairbanks area, yet you never know. All details could be useful 🙂

  9. Most of the settings in my writing are purely fictional and exist only in my mind. However, I do base everything on places I’ve experienced. If I needed to include a scene from the real world, I’d want to go there if at all possible. New Orleans wouldn’t come across as authentic, for example, if the writer had never been there, in my opinion.

    Great blog, glad to have found you.

    • Thanks for stopping by Madison! I agree that New Orleans would be difficult to describe properly if you haven’t been there. Despite that, there are probably authors who have done it. I’ve only driven through the city myself, so haven’t really visited it. I’m trying to convince the hubby to go there, but he isn’t going for it yet. For now, I stay away from using that as one of my settings.

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