Wednesday, April 15, 2009

To Go or Not to Go. The Next Best Thing to Being There.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of April 15? Tax deadlines? Flowers in bloom? Spring fever? April showers? The fact that in less than two months, half the year will be over? The aura of love in the air and the realization that you’re going to have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince? April 15 is all that and more.

To me, April conjures up dreams of faraway places and vacations. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled a lot in my life for both business and pleasure. But I’m addicted to traveling. So there are a lot more places I’d like to go.

I’ve never gone to a place just to do research for a book, but that idea appeals to me. However, I have set books in places that I’ve traveled to and loved, like Italy, where I went to school for six months; Miami, Florida, where I was born; Gainesville, Florida, where I went to college; Palm Coast, Florida, where I have a beach condo; and Bermuda, where I’ve spent many wonderful vacations.

When I’m at the beach, I wake up for every sunrise, get out my notebook while it’s still quiet or sit out on my deck facing the ocean. I look out at the waves, the sand, the sun, the birds and the boats, and describe what I see. Many of those impressions have ended up in the pages of my book.

For the book that was set in Bermuda, I had to do research on the history of the island because the story was set in WW II. I have memories of Bermuda as it is today, but not as it was then. That book never sold (I was told that WW II wasn’t a popular time period for a romance, but I know I’ll come back to that book one day).

Wherever you decide to set your book, you are only as far away as your computer.

Once in an RWA seminar, I heard Nora Roberts say she does all her research on-line and doesn’t travel to the location. Furthermore, she does her own research. Nevertheless, her books have a wonderful sense of place. Alas, we can’t all be Nora Roberts.

I’m sure many writers select settings for their books and travel to those locations to do research. I think that would be a great way to approach a project.

What do you think? Do you have to visit a place before you can effectively write about it? Do you have to be there? What about other writers you know? Do they prefer to visit the location where their books are set or do they do their research via the Internet? Can you write a story that rings true if it’s set in a location you’ve never actually seen? Or are your imagination and the Internet the only tickets you need to your destination?

Marilyn Baron


Cyrano said...

Very compelling question Marilyn my dear.
I have to say both sides of the argument.
I've never traveled to England. One of my paranormals is set there. But even if I'd gone to England every year for the last twenty, I wouldn't get what it had been like in 1784. Sure there's a lot of history left standing on that side of the world, castles, churches, the monarchy, but it's still not the same England of 1784. So in that respect, the internet and libraries (poor libraries, I haven't set foot in a library in 10 years) do just fine I suspect. You can learn alot from the internet. Hell, mapquest alone is useful for actually seeing a place you've never been. My WIP is set in California. I mapquested San Francisco to find woods I needed my characters to escape into. Bingo, I find a huge nature preserve. With mapquest's online pictures, I "drove" the streets bordering the park as if I was there. I was able to describe exactly what my characters were seeing. Pretty darn cool!
I was really impressed with myself for figuring out that trick (all though I'm sure others have done it)
Now, on the other side of the argument I think it certainly couldn't hurt to visit the place you're writing about. Using my WIP as an example again, I have been to SF. I was there last year for nationals. Being in the city, I got a feel for the sounds, the smells, the feel of the place. I think my recent visit has given Lover's Doom a bit more ambiance. And if my husband ever takes me out of the country (come on Dusty, stop being such a work-a-holic and take me on a trip!) and I happen to visit England I'll be able to absorb the sounds and smells of that country and inject them into my novels too. Your story should be well rounded. Research is key, but actually being there can make a big difference as well.
Great post Marilyn,
have a happy, productive day,

Debbie Kaufman said...

I guess with Google earth, we can "go" anywhere these days! I prefer to have been there myself!

Marilyn Baron said...

Thanks Tamara and Debbie for your comments. I've never used the MapQuest online photo feature or Google earth for book research, but I'm going to try it.

I'm rooting for you to get to England. My husband doesn't like to take off work to go on vacation either but usually he gets tired of me nagging so he relents. Another trick is to say,
Okay, I'll just go myself. That works, too.


Marin Thomas said...


It would be wonderful to have the money and means to visit all the places I've written about in my books, but my research comes from the internet, other books, and people I know from those places--people who've lived there and can give me their personal impressions of those places.

Some day I hope I can schedule a trip just to research a book!

A Cowboy's Promise (April 2009)

CiCi Barnes said...

Personally, I think I need to be somewhere to accurately write about it, but that's my own personal insecure demon on my shoulder. I'm worried someone will call me on a detail. I've written two books that started out in north Georgia where I've lived all my life, but they also ventured to Charleston and Savannah, which I've visited many times.

The good thing about my books, mostly, is they're about parallel worlds, which I make up in my head. No one can dispute my claims as to what my settings are like. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to that writing about those. A psychologist might could enlighten me, but let's not go there.

Yes, the internet gives us so much info, complete with street maps and GoogleEarth views, so we are better off these days in the writing world if we can't actually travel there, even if we're writing historicals.

There are so many variables dictating travels these days. Let's hope our readers are forgiving if we make a faux pas, or better yet, hope they've never been to our setting and we've researched well enough to 'take them away'.

Great post for making us think, Marilyn.


Anonymous said...

I vote for visiting a place if at all possible. I'm not a writer, but I am a traveller. I don't think there is any substitute for actually experiencing a place. Google earth can't replace crashing waves, screeching seagulls, the tang of salt in the air or the warmth of a tropical sun. Even in our global culture, there are distinctive rythms of speech and styles of interaction that have to be experienced.

Marilyn Baron said...

Brenda (Marin),
It just goes to show that you can be a successful writer without "being there" in your location. Thanks for your comment.

Parallel worlds. Hmm. Sounds like a good solution.


Maybe you should be a writer -- crashing waves, screeching seagulls, the tang of salt in the air, the warmth of a tropical sun -- makes the place you're describing come alive.

I appreciate your comment. Your point about experiencing the distinctive rhythms of speech, etc. was well taken.

Marilyn Baron

Marilyn Baron said...

Good post, Marilyn. I'm one who needs to be in the places I've set my books. I've done some brief scenes for areas where I know friends and gather "local" info from them, but mostly my books are set in places I've been to. While I've never gone to a place just to set a book there, I have returned to previous spots to get a fresher feel. Example? Savannah. Been there many times but went back last year while writing a book set there. It's an opportunity to talk to locals, see things that might be fuzzy in your memory, etc.


Posted for Elaine Burroughs (who said the blog ate her text) by Marilyn Baron

Anonymous said...


Read your post with interest. Setting location is not one of my strengths and so I have a tendency to use locations I know well or have visited, though I have also been known to pick the brains of people who live in locations when possible.

For THE ACCIDENTAL BESTSELLER, which comes out in June I have two characters in places I know and two in other cities--one is in New York, the other in Chicago--that I've visited but don't know well. In those cases I found friends of friends there and asked about where my character might live, what the neighborhood was like, what restaurants they might frequent,etc. and then looked them up online. One person gave me directions from the airport to my fictional home in a real neighborhood. People do really like to help!

Of course, the only place I ever visited solely to solidify the location for a book turned out to be the one book I didn't sell! Loved Santa Fe, but it was an expensive bit of research that did NOT pay off!

Wendy Wax

Marilyn Baron said...


I can't wait to read your new book when it comes out in June.

It is amazing how eager people are to help when you're writing. Thanks for visiting our blog and commenting.

Marilyn Baron

Carol Burnside said...

I'd prefer to have been there myself, but I won't let that stop me from choosing a location I'm unfamiliar with (in the future).

However, I have plenty of places to draw from in the areas I've lived: Texas, Ark, Okla, Texas, Ark, Miss, Texas, Northern Va, Colo, Hawaii, Northern Ga, Southern MD.

In addition, I've visited or vacationed in numerous other states and Italy, Switzerland, Cancun and the northern Yucatan, and Nassau.

A lot of authors I know do extensive research via the internet and use pictures books and tourist guides (these are usually up to date, within a year) to add authenticity.

Carol Burnside said...

One thing I forgot to mention is that living so many different places (and sometimes when returning to a state living in a different locale entirely) has made me aware that I can't take anything for granted. For instance, if I'd only been to the Texas and Florida coasts but never been to Hawaii, I wouldn't have known that one thing is conspicuously absent on the beaches there: seagulls. Details are important.

Marilyn Baron said...

You're also more observant than I am, because I didn't realize Hawaii didn't have seagulls. I've been there twice but never thought about what was missing. Growing up in Florida, I'm very familiar with seagulls. There are so many details to take into account. It's interesting that you take away different experiences living in the same place more than one time (i.e. Texas).

Thanks for your insightful comments.


Nicki Salcedo said...

I think a combination of imagination and experience creates a real sense of place. There are certain places I've read about that I really felt that I knew and could write about. Then there are the details (like the seagulls). I never imagined the beaches in southern California to be so cold and windy. East coast and Florida beaches are so warm. North east coast beaches are so rocky. No two beaches are the same. Details!

Thanks, Marilyn.

Tami Brothers said...

Hey Marilyn,

Another terrific post!!! I vote for going to the place, only because I WANT to travel. BUT I have to say that there is a lot of detail that you also don't get by being in a place. I have been to Rapid City, South Dakato nermerous times but it wasn't until I picked up a visitors guide on the state that I found out about the Crazy Horse monument. I'd passed right by but was always looking for Mt. Rushmore and totally missed the huge Indian and his horse being carved into the mountain on the other side.

I guess I'm just not that observant about some things (I'd be one of those that didn't even think about the sea gulls - expect to be thankful they weren't stealing my food while I sat at a sidwalk table).

I will also be looking into Google Earth more. I knew about it, but have never played with it like Tamara described above. Sounds fun!!!!


Susan May said...

Anytime you want to go and your husband doesn't let me know. I have wonderlust badly. In fact I am cheap with almost everything because I'd rather spend my money traveling. I write about places I've been but also use the web for additional info. Many times when I travel I come up with a story to go with the place. I'm working on a group of books I dreamed up while visiting castles in England. It is also a good way to make the trip a tax write off--but you much write the book for the trip to qualify.

Marilyn Baron said...

Tami, Nicki and Susan,

Thanks for your comments. Tami, your remark about being at a place and not seeing it or all of it was interesting.


I'm always ready to go anywhere, anytime.


Linsey Lanier said...

Great post, Marilyn.

I'm impressed with you, too, Tamara. Google maps has a similar "street view" feature. I used it to scour the south side of Chicago for a nice dilapidated warehouse to set a cop shooting for my wip. I certainly wouldn't have gone there myself, lol.

Whether or not you go to the place you're writing about, you still need to do research, IMO. You might remember the smells and sounds and the feel, but you can't always remember a street name or the exact look of a place.


Marilyn Baron said...

That's a good point Linsey.


Ana Aragón said...

I've been lots of places, so I find myself using those memories as settings for my stories. But I like make-believe towns, like Logan Springs, in which I combined a visit to Columbus, GA and my experience living in a small town in Georgia.

I love traveling and then using my descriptions in my stories.

What a fun post! I loved reading everyone else's comments as well.

Marilyn Baron said...

Thanks, Ana. I like that idea of combining a real place with a make believe town.