The old adage is “write what you know.” Most writers, though, have to step outside that comfort zone sooner or later.
If you are writing something set in the “real world,” you might set it in your hometown, or a town where you have lived for several years. However, you might also want to set your story somewhere else. One way, used by many, is to create a fictional town or city. DC Comics has Metropolis, Lovecraft has the infamous Arkham, and Agatha Christie has created wholly invented towns like Chipping Cleghorn.
Ah, but what if you really do want to use real-world locations? Maybe you want to set your book in San Francisco but have never been further west than Minneapolis. Or, you discover that Copenhagen is the Las Vegas of Europe and need to do a shotgun wedding.
This article has tools and techniques for writing in somebody else’s town without, hopefully, having a bunch of locals inform you that there is no such Metro station as “Cathedral Heights.”
So, how do you start researching settings for your writing?
Like everything else, writing in somebody else’s town takes research. For most of us these days, the first stop is the internet. Here are a few good sources you can start with:
- Wikipedia. People knock Wikipedia as a source, but it’s useful for basic facts about a place and as a starting point. You can usually trust it to give you such information as population and a few facts. Remember that Wikipedia is for things “everyone knows,” and may not always be accurate. I’ve found it to be useful, though.
- Historical weather sources. If you just want to know what the weather was like on June 21st, 1999 in London, Weather Underground is a good source (If you’re curious, it was in the 50s and not raining). If you’re just trying to find out what would be typical for London in June, though, you can literally just google “weather average for London” and it’ll give you averages by month. Another useful site is Holidayweather.com, although it only covers major tourist destinations. Which brings us to:
- TripAdvisor. You may laugh, but I use TripAdvisor all the time and not just to find restaurants while on vacation. Use it to look through restaurants in Helsinki to discover what Finnish people eat, to find historical sites that might end up being plot points. If you use it for travel and have an account, I recommend researching for settings in incognito mode, so it doesn’t spam your email on the assumption you are actually planning on going to Rome…
- The town’s own website. Most towns these days have a website, and it’s a good source of information for historical overviews, demographics, etc. Check out the chamber of commerce site too. Often, they have a list of stores and restaurants downtown (remember not to make a real business look bad in your story). These sites will also give information intended for residents. Do you need to know if trash day is Tuesday or Wednesday? Are you looking for a park to set a scene in?
- Real estate sites. Realtors often have useful neighborhood guides on their sites, which are aimed at people relocating. House prices can also tell you at a glance where the bad part of town is.
Google Maps and Google Street View
I have no idea how people wrote in other places without Google Maps and Street View. If you’re writing in a city you have never been to, or even one you are only somewhat familiar with, you can literally “travel” around the city virtually and move your characters from place to place. You can go down a specific street in a neighborhood and see what style the houses are. Trace your characters movements during the outline or the first draft. You can also use the directions function to work out travel time if it’s relevant.
On a related note, for big cities, do look at the transit map so you don’t make a Cathedral Heights level mistake. Unless, of course, you intend to. Check opening hours, too…
Repeat after me, libraries are good. You might think that somebody else’s public library system is too far away to be any good. You would be surprised. More and more libraries will now give access to their electronic collections and research databases to people from out of town for a fee, which is usually $40-60 a year. This option is seldom available for people in another country. But access to a library’s digital resources can be priceless. (It might even be worth contacting the librarian and telling them you’re writing a book, they might be able to do something for you).
When the internet and library collections fail you, you may need to actually talk to real people. As a note, if you are setting your story more than five years in the past, you definitely need to find somebody who lived there at that time. Big cities, in particular, can change surprisingly rapidly. Was that park there when your characters were?
For novels, a targeted beta reader is a good idea. You can even find one by using the search phrase“sensitivity reader.” Although most sensitivity readers are concerned with demographics, location is important too. You might have to pay them, or you might be able to find another writer willing to do a trade on beta reading.
If you’re lucky, somebody who lives in the place you’re researching might be in your chain of social media friends. It’s always worth asking. Failing that, there are several sources for local experts:
- Librarians. Yes, we’re back to librarians, but helping with research is what they are there for.
- The local community college. If there’s a local community college, one of the teachers there might be willing to help you out. Or even one of the students, especially if you can send them a tip.
- Local government outreach. A lot of local government sites have an outreach section where you can send them a message with specific questions. You don’t have to be a resident, and the magic words “I’m writing a book” can get you a long way.
Trips: Researching Your Setting Firsthand
Needless to say, research trips can be completely out of reach for many writers. If you do have the cash, though, there is really no substitute for getting the feel of a place. Here are some tips to keep your trip within budget:
- Know how much time you need. Going back often costs more than staying an extra day.
- Go off-peak or offseason. Avoid school holidays, especially in Europe. British hotels, for example, are quite notorious for trebling rates when the kids are off school.
- If the town you’re researching is an expensive tourist trap, see if you can stay somewhere nearby. This may not always work.
- Consider using AirBnB or a similar solution rather than a hotel, especially if you’re planning a longer stay. Look for a place with a kitchen. You can learn a lot from local grocery stores.
- Get a VPN so you can work over hotel networks with more security.
- In Europe, take the train. Trust me, just take the train.
- Make it your family vacation anyway. In fact, you could even decide to set your book somewhere you really want to go… and use research as an excuse.
But if you can’t afford to go there, don’t be afraid to set your book (or short story, or few chapters of a book) in a city or town you have never personally visited. If you do your research, you can make it work without annoying the locals.