Photo is from the Moroccan Garden in the Wilhelma Zoo in Stuttgart, Germany. Taken by Kate Ota in 2013.
Sometimes you don’t have any vacation time. Sometimes it’s too expensive. Sometimes life gets in the way. Whatever the reason, you may not be able to travel to the places you feature in your writing. But you shouldn’t let that limit what you can write!
I’ve written about Ireland, Spain, and Southern France—all places I’ve never been. How did I do it? Research, of course! Here are my top tips for writing about places you’ve never been.
1. Learn the history.
You don’t have to go back to ancient times, but you absolutely need to know major wars, political history, and cultural history. Let’s be real, Google is the easiest source for this. And you’re not writing non-fiction, so you’ll find enough of an overview for you to get the main points. Feel free to get creative though, YouTube has lots of history videos, including history of fashion, which can be full of gems.
2. Know the differences between your country/city and theirs.
My favorite source for this is blogs by college students studying abroad. They tend to pick up on lots of day-to-day details, and usually point out the “this is so different!” factor. Travel blogs can also be helpful, though they tend to focus on tourist attractions.
3. Give yourself a google maps street view tour of the city you’re writing about.
It will give you a sense of what the buildings look like, what people are wearing as they walk down the street, and what cars are popular. YouTube may also offer videos posted by tourists of their various walking or driving tours.
4. Check the weather.
Weather is well documented, so even if it’s not currently the season in your book, you can get any information you want. How cold was it in December in Oslo? When does the sunset in Buenos Ares in June? Is it a dry heat or a humid heat in Kansas? Keep in mind how weather has changed over time. Are they in a drought? Are hurricanes more common than they used to be? These details can help your scenes feel grounded in your location.
5. Interview someone from your chosen location.
I know this isn’t always an option, but this is your chance to use your network. Your friends may have friends who live, have lived, or even just spent a vacation in that city. You never know what great information they can offer.
6. Read books or watch movies about the location—preferably non-fiction.
Take everything with a grain of salt, you never know when that author or director took creative liberties. But if it’s written by a native of that locale, these sources can be goldmines.
7. Pretend to plan a trip there.
This can reveal lots of things you hadn’t thought about before. Is there public transportation (that goes anywhere useful) or would you need to rent a car? That will dictate how your characters travel. Is the city tourism focused or off the beaten trail? In foreign countries that could be the difference between everyone speaking English and no one speaking English. This is also a great way to learn about the food, based on recommendations on places like Yelp and Trip Advisor.
8. Learn the local food.
Not only should you look at restaurants there, but you can look at contemporary and historical recipes posted online. You can also check Instagram for food photos posted by locals to get a sense of everyday meals. This is another thing that study abroad students will discuss often, particularly if they had trouble finding things in grocery stores. (For example, you can’t find sour cream in Germany.)
9. Know current events.
For locations in the US, you can easily find local news stations on Facebook to watch clips, maybe even a local paper to read online. For international locations, especially non-English speaking, this is less straightforward. For that, you’ll need to rely on major news sources. BBC does a great job of covering International news. You’re going to want to know about current elections and political climates and social issues. Keep in mind, cities tend to be more progressive than rural areas. A news source may discuss social issues occurring in a city one way, but if you’re writing about a nearby rural region, things will be different.
10. Listen to local music.
Almost every state has a song about it. Every state will also have a popular genre of music, like country, rap, pop, bluegrass, etc. You can play it in the background to get into the mentality. Other countries will have their own styles of music, both traditional and current. European countries (and Australia) have entries in Eurovision every year, they’re all on YouTube. Most Eurovision songs are in English, so that can help you get a sense of their music without a language barrier. Keep in mind, music is going to be played in public, like various stores, malls, and outdoor events. Odds are, your character will hear music, so embrace it.
Have you written about a real place you’ve never been? What methods did you use? Did you find these tips helpful? Let’s chat in the comments!