Researching for a book – Part II
Where to go on the next holiday?
This can be a question that is tough to answer. The choices and decisions are overwhelming.
Travelling has become its own culture, and your list of amazing Instagram itineraries keeps growing.
I’d like to suggest an approach that will not only make travelling more exciting and nurturing but solve writing block and eliminate the blank page scare.
When Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral went hunting in the Alps in 1941, he noticed his clothes were covered in burdock burrs. De Mestral put one of the burrs under a microscope.
This is how the Velcro strips were invented.
Had Mestral never gone out into the Alps, he would have never discovered the burdock burrs that ignited the spark of a new invention. So if you want to come up with new story writing ideas, or deepen your novels by researching for a book, travelling is the magic potion.
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.
#1 Travelling as a writer is an experience
Not a single photo, nor Google Streetview can compare to being there. The experience of a new culture, location, the people you meet and the details you discover are nothing like researching for a book 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 Nobody sees the world as you do
You have a unique way of perceiving things, noticing the details that nobody else notices, and experiencing the world around you in ways 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 travelled 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.
Power-Tip: Take time to write while you’re on location. We tend to forget quickly, so make you write down your observations, feelings and impressions the same day.
#3 Traveling as a writer 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.
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’ll discover when travelling. Unexpected things will happen and provide you with countless sparks to give your story a new spin and a new twist.
Travelling as a writer 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 as a writer
In this part, I will share with you important advice on how to get the most out journey while you are researching for a book. Don’t take the preparation too lightly, because travelling 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?
During your first and even your second draft, your plot will drastically change from the initial story writing 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 the 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.
Researching for a book online and in literature is enough for the first and even the second draft.
Power-Tip: Travel right 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 method acting, literally stepping 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 to 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 travelling as a writer count beyond the journey and ease the work as soon as you return to your desk:
- something to take notes: a notebook or 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 mirroring the “feeling” 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 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 feelings once you rewatch them.
I had my camera with me everywhere (as my friends’ pictures above prove) with an extensive setup: the Sony a7s II, a gimbal, the Mavic drone and several lenses. But your phone camera will do as well.
They can also serve as a 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 maybe the most dedicated ones might even consider following your hero’s steps themselves.
#4 Interact with locals
From researching for my book online, I knew that when entering Dunvegan Castle, a large staircase greets the visitor and leads him towards two identic doors. I was dying to find out what lay beyond them. But while there, we had to make our way straight to the right as soon as we entered, and, after having walked around the whole castle, never saw what lay beyond those doors.
This kind of information you’ll never find on the internet. What now?
I asked one of the museum workers who 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. 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. A wall. The second door was an illusion.
There are many things you will never find out as a simple “tourist” and this is also the beauty of writing – 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.
Don’t travel on your own. Observe your companions’ reactions to the scenery and use it for the characters in your books. Consider the group dynamics of your travel party and how it’s influenced by the locations.
Travelling as a writer is a special kind of adventure reserved for bookworms and story enthusiasts. It’s not to be missed and adds a new dimension compared to a simple relaxing trip on the beach.
The costs, the time, the effort … was this really necessary? I had my doubts when embarking on the book research journey. In retrospect, I can only stress: yes!