Should You Travel to Research Your Novel?

Filed in The Writing Life by on June 17, 2014 • views: 288

Travel-300x211Situation: I’m in the second draft of my work in progress.

My characters travel across country, from Iowa to California.

Dilemma: I’ve either a) never been to the locations where my characters stop along the way, or b) it’s been so long the places are dim in my memory.

Solution 1: Research via the Internet.

I’ve already done this quite a bit, and it’s helped a lot. I’m doing pretty well putting together pictures, maps, and other research information to create the scenes, but I haven’t actually seen a lot of these places. I haven’t smelled the air, sensed the energy, touched the leaves on the trees or the wood on the buildings. Readers may sense that.

Heck, I sense that—the feeling that I’m not being as real with my story as I could be.

Solution 2: Swap out all the real locations for made-up ones.

Easy enough. I’ve done this before—set the story in a make-believe location. Solves all the problems. No one to come back on you later and say, “Hey, there’s no gas station next to the Perkins in Name city in Name state.”

Unfortunately, it’s not going to work for this story. There’s a pivotal scene that takes place in a very real location that just can’t take place anywhere else. That scene has to take place there, and to have the characters in make-believe locations all the way up to the last scene makes no sense whatsoever.

So, the locations have to be real. Mostly.

Solution 3: Take the trip myself.

When I first thought of this, I was like, “Yeah, right. Like I can afford the expense and time away from work!”

Second thought was, “How would I ever do that, anyway? There’s just too much going on this year.”

Third thought was, “You need to go.”

The thought didn’t come out that clearly, of course. It was a quiet, persistent, in-the-back-of-my-mind kind of thought. Every morning as I chipped away at the work, the thought sang away like a distant recording.

You need to goooooo…..”

From Imagination to Reality

They say nothing happens without first having been imagined. The image of my trip continued to gain clarity until finally one day I talked to someone about it.

I chose someone who was a) extremely supportive of my work, and b) loved to travel. I mean, loved to travel.

Her answer: “Definitely! We need to go!”

Bonus: This person is my mother, and how often does one get to take a cross-country trip with her mother? I’m really close with mine, and life is short. This made the decision easier to make.

From Decision to Hard Work

Preparation for this trip was hard, mostly because of the volume of work I had to do to a) afford the trip, and b) get everything done so my clients would be covered while I was away. (One of the drawbacks of freelance writing—there isn’t really any real vacation time.) I put in a number of really long weeks, where my back was screaming at me for failing to get up and move often enough!

Planning the trip was also hard work, but enjoyable. I had to map out the journey my characters take so I could determine how much ground we’d be covering each day, and which locations we’d be visiting. I’ve already drafted the book, so this went pretty well as I know where the main scenes take place. It just took quite a bit of time—time that had to be squeezed in between work, edits due to my publisher on my upcoming novel, preparations so the house and the dog would be taken care of while I was gone, and a few hours sleep in between.

The Actual Trip

The first time I spotted a landmark important to my characters I was so excited I felt I was going to burst out of my skin. To have spent over a year on a draft of a novel, and then actually see the places I’ve visited so often in my imagination is an experience that’s difficult to describe. It’s like actually going to a place you’ve dreamed of, but never thought you’d visit in real life.

Does the seeing change the story? So far, I don’t think so, though I’m holding out judgment on the ending, which could go one of two ways. My basic plot will stay the same, but with every step in every new town, every side road explored, every landmark photographed and every scene re-imagined, the trip is sinking into my bones like a thick blues tune, already flowing out of my fingers and onto the page with a more natural rhythm.

What About Your Novel?

Not all novels require travel. My first two—a young adult fantasy and a literary novel set in a fictional town in my state—didn’t nag me for more information in the form of “been-there-seen-and-heard-that” fashion. So whether yours does or doesn’t require this sort of investment is a decision only you (and your characters) can make.

“I have always traveled for my novels,” says Dr. Sanjida O’Connell. “I firmly believe that no amount of research on its own can help you understand the feel of a place. Smell, in particular, is hard to grasp.”

I’ve only been on the road for three days at the time of this writing, and I’ve already noticed this. Though the locations look similar to how I imagined them after conducting a good amount of online research, the feel—that sense how a place affects you when you’re in it—was quite different in many cases. Now that I have a better sense of the reality, I’m already finding it easier to write the scenes because the details are so much more familiar.

The other thing that’s great about this trip is experiencing the reality of getting from one place to the other. Writers usually don’t include the boring details of traveling from here to there in the book, but knowing how it feels to cover those miles will help me better portray the moods of my characters when they arrive at their stopping places along the way.

“Experiencing a character’s tangible reality was important to me,” says Sandra Gulland. “Having a feel for a character’s physical world gives me a certain authority when writing. But also, for me, it’s a lot about logistics: how did she get from here to there? What were the dimensions of her world?”

The Biggest Benefit to Travel

I’m in the middle of my trip now, and will provide an update later about how the whole experience affected the book. My feeling so far is that since it already feels more real to me, the text will come across as more authentic—I hope!

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling like your next work-in-progress would benefit from travel, I’d highly recommend it. One thing I know for certain will happen at the end of this experience—I will grow as a writer.

And isn’t that what’s it’s all about?

Have you ever traveled to research a novel? Are you planning to? Please share your thoughts.

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