Did you know that most of the greatest inventions are inspired by nature?
As Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral went hunting in the Alps in 1941, he noticed his clothes were covered in burdock burrs. This mechanism of clinging to passing creatures is the burdock’s way of spreading seeds across greater distances.
Mestral, driven by the spirit of discovery, put one of the burrs under a microscope. This is how the Velcro strips were invested.
What does this story have in common with writing fiction?
You don’t have to invent your world from scratch. In fact, this is close to an impossibility, and that’s why the blank page is so frightening.
There is so much wonder in our world to be discovered and reinvented for the purpose of your book. Had Mestral never gone out into the Alps, he would have never discovered the burdock burrs that ignited the spark of a new invention.
And I’d like to argue that writing is not only about sitting down and getting words on paper. It’s also about getting out there and discovering the world.
Nowadays, there is a culture around travelling across all generations, but I found that travelling just for travelling’s sake grows dull very quickly. It’s when travelling for a “higher purpose” that you suddenly see it in a whole new way. And the best way – for me – is researching for a book.
But there is Google Maps and Google Streetview. Isn’t that enough? What exactly are the benefits of travelling and how can we make the most of them for our fiction?
I recently embarked on a research travel for “Prometheus Rising”, the first book of my new dystopian trilogy, following the footsteps of my main character to do my last edit. But what I discovered was that it took my novel to a whole new level.
Let me make the case for research travel.
#1 Traveling is an experience
Not a single photo, nor Google Streetview or anything else can compare to actually being there. The experience of a new culture, location, the people you meet and the details you discover are nothing like researching a place on the internet.
The experience of following your character’s footsteps will enhance your understating of the character and the journey she takes. It will give you a sense of the distances, the (non-)consistency of the weather, the changing tides and daytimes. It will provide you with amazing description since suddenly, you can experience the location with all your senses.
If you want your story world to be rich and captivate your readers, you need to experience it firsthand. There is no way around it.
Experiencing the awe of Glencoe, the solemnness of the Isle of Skye and the enchanting greens of the Lake District enriched my story world AND my characters the way no photograph could.
#2 You see the world in your own unique way
You have a unique way of perceiving things, noticing the details that nobody else notices, and experiencing the world around you in a way nobody can.
This is one of the reasons your readers love your books. Because of the way you make them see the world. And if hundreds of writers had been to this location, there is still room for your ideas, feeling and descriptions.
If you want to bring this unique worldview to the locations you use in your fiction, you’ll need to visit them. Nobody else will be able to recreate those experiences and places the way you will. And this is exactly what you readers are craving.
Pro-Tip: Take time to write while you’re on location. We tend to forget quickly, and nothing compares to writing down your observations, feelings and impressions the same day.
#3 Traveling holds unknown discoveries
When I embarked on the “Prometheus Rising” research journey, I was aware that there were things about my book I did not know and would find out while on the road. I was prepared for those small tweaks and edits.
But I was wrong.
What I discovered during those seven days turned my novel upside down. It made me rewrite and rethink my plot, changed my characters and provided me with brand new ideas about how to design the story world, make it more believable, closer to the culture and the people.
You never know what you will discover when travelling. Unexpected things will happen, beautiful things that will provide you with countless sparks to give your story a new spin and a new twist.
Travel costs time and energy. But it never leaves you empty handed, and it’s worth the investment.Writing is also about getting out there and discovering the world. Click To Tweet
In the next section, we will have a look at how to make the most of your book research travel.
The most important thing is: Never come unprepared!
How to effectively travel for book research
In this part, I will share with you important advice on how to get the most out of your book research journey. Don’t take the preparation too lightly, because travel always involves costs.
It’s a nightmare to return home and start writing only to realize that you have missed important locations or details on your journey.
#1 Travel after your first draft
It’s tempting to travel before even a letter has appeared on the blank paper. If you know you want to write a novel situated in New York, wouldn’t it make sense to travel to New York first? But this is a false conclusion.
During your first and even your second draft, your plot will drastically change from the initial idea. For those drafts, photographic and online research is absolutely sufficient. It’s only when there is a map for the hero’s journey that questions start to pop up you cannot answer without seeing the locations.
I’ve been to Scotland two years ago when my novel was but a spark in my imagination. But it was only after my two initial drafts that I understood which locations I needed to see and which details and facts to examine in order to have full clarity about my hero’s quest.
The first power strategy – online and book research – is enough for the first and even the second draft.
My advice is: Travel before submitting your last draft to the editor.
#2 Plan your route
Make sure you plan your route as close to the book as possible.
Do your characters travel from A to B? Make sure you take this route, too. Are they on this location by day or by night? Try to get there at the same time of day.
You can go as far as a method actor, and literally step into the shoes of your characters miming their conditions. You could dress lightly in the cold mountains to feel the icy chill, or cover a challenging route on foot if your characters do so. Just watch out for your safety and health!
For the “Prometheus Rising” Route, we flew into Edinburgh and travelled all the way down to London via Skye, Glencoe, the Lake District and Pembrokeshire in Wales. In was an extensive route to cover in 7 days only, but it was worth every effort and penny.
Before travelling, I also marked parts of the story that needed a rewrite according to what I’d find on my journey, and wrote down questions I needed to find answers to, like:
What is behind the two doors right at the end of the stairs in Dunvegan Castle?
(continue reading for the answer)
#3 Take a camera and a notebook/laptop
You’ll need two things to make your travel count beyond the journey and ease the work as soon as you return to your desk:
- something to take notes, like a notebook or ideally, the laptop with your manuscript file and your research folders
- a camera
The former is crucial because you’ll need to write every evening, at least some bullet points or some free writing about your immediate impression. This writing will be the most valuable when it comes to mirroring the “feel” of the place.
But don’t expect to get much work done on your novel itself. Use the time to actually travel and see as much as you can. Just don’t forget to capture those initials reactions.
A camera is handy for every occasion. Photos and videos will remind you of little details you might have forgotten and bring back thoughts, ideas and feeling once you rewatch them.
I have my camera with me literally everywhere (as my friends’ pictures above prove) and had a pretty extensive setup: the Sony a7s II, a gimbal, the Mavic drone and several lenses. But I promise, your phone can do wonders nowadays.
They can also serve as a great marketing strategy. Post the photos and videos on your author website, your Instagram account and YouTube. It’s great to share these adventures with readers, and who knows, the most dedicated ones might even consider following your hero’s steps themselves.
From online photographs, I knew that when you enter Dunvegan Castle, you are greeted by a large staircase that leads towards two identic doors. Naturally, I was dying to find out what lay beyond them. So my disappointment was great when we were lead straight to the right as soon as we entered, and, after having walked around the whole castle, never saw what lay beyond those doors.
Now, this kind of information can be attributed to the things you’ll never find on the internet. What to do? – Just ask!
I asked one of the museum workers, and surely enough, she was eager to answer my strange request. Those two doors were built for the sake of symmetry, an architectural trend during the construction of the castle, she explained. Only one of them had a function. It opened the way to a set of stairs that lead to the next level of the castle. Behind the other one was – nothing. Only a wall. The second door turned out to be an illusion.
There are many things you will never find out as a simple “tourist” and this is also the beauty of books – embedding unknown, marvellous and quirky facts. Don’t be afraid to interact with the people and the culture in the region. You might find out the craziest things that will spark ideas and give your books important twists. Just ask as many questions as you can.
Also, I encourage you not to travel on your own, but rather observe your companions’ reactions to the scenery and use it for the characters of your books. Consider the group dynamics of your travel party and how it’s influenced by the locations.
An exception might be if your character travels all alone …
Are you still resistant when you think to go through the “trouble” of travelling to finish your book?
I know I was when the thought crossed my mind for the first time. The costs, the time, the effort … was this really necessary? In retrospect, I can repeat again and again: yes!
And now that I’m equipped with this knowledge and experience, I only want more. It’s true: like writing, travelling can be addictive!