Do Authors Need to Travel for Research?

This post is by  Sanjida O’Connell.

Stef Penney, bestselling author of The Tenderness of Wolves, is famously agoraphobic. To research her novel, set in the Canadian wilderness, she barely made it to the British Library. At least she had an excuse. Two authors of books recently published on Haiti and China have both answered the question, Do authors need to travel for research? by saying they had both chosen not to travel to their chosen countries.

I find this hard to understand. I have always traveled for my novels: for Theory of Mind, set in a zoo in the Midlands, I lived in one for nine months. Angel Bird is based in Northern Ireland where I spent part of my childhood, yet I still returned for a research trip. The Naked Name of Love is set in Bristol, where I live, and Outer Mongolia: I traveled across the country for three weeks (sadly my clothes, apart from the ones I had on, remained in Russia). For Sugar Island, I visited the real St. Simons Island, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia.

Then I had a baby and went into a complete tailspin. How was I ever going to travel ever again for my work? Aside from being overly melodramatic, I’m now in the situation in which many writers find themselves. If you are not lucky enough to have an advance from a publishing company, how can you afford to travel? Should you take your family and blow the annual
vacation budget on your research trip? Never mind the money, can you afford the time you’ll need to take off work?

Do authors need to travel for research, or can you research your novel without traveling?

And, more importantly, should you stay at home? We are lucky enough to live in a time with a huge amount of information on many places in the world, including Google Earth and its eerie pictures of our abodes. We are blessed with brilliant libraries, academic journals accessible online, and that great literary leveler: Amazon. Documentaries can help too, though these are not always easy to get hold of. Clearly, in three weeks I couldn’t see much of Mongolia, and, as my novel was set in 1859, I relied heavily on a diary written by a priest, which I was able to access through an interlibrary loan without leaving my desk.

Another advantage of remaining at home is that you create your vision of a place in a particular time period, without being swayed by reality. I was recently toying with setting a novel in Marrakech in the 1600s and was shocked, after I visited, to discover that the image in my mind did not match up to the modern city with Zara and J Crew on the high street (how dare
those Moroccans want a lifestyle like mine?).

You need every resource possible to write a decent book.

However, 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. Endless reading or watching travel programmes could never have told me what it would be like to stand under Outer Mongolia’s limitless blue skies or to know that the steppes would be scented with a wild herb, redolent
of thyme, sage, and lamb stew. Or that Sugar Island would smell like, “rotting fresh seawater, seaweed, fish on the edge of decomposition.

Putting together my research and travel (ER, walking round the city I live in) led to this odiferous passage from The Naked Name of Love:

Men were stacking the dark, sticky cones of sugar ready to ship them to Gloucester. The air was thick with syrup and sulphur, harsh with the stench of flayed animals and preservatives from the tanneries. The river was bloated on sewage, blood, fat from the soap factory; the body of a pig drifted past, its corpse swollen, its snout misshapen where fish had eaten away its nostrils.

My advice, if you can’t travel, would be to set your novel somewhere you know intimately already, or where you live now. Or create a new world. If you really want to write about a lost world in Papua New Guinea you’ll need to spend a lot longer on research to achieve the same level of authenticity. My solution for my own situation has been to rewrite a novel I’d already done the travel for pre-baby. But then, I didn’t write, The Tenderness of Wolves.

Whats your opinion: Do you travel for research?

About the Author: Dr. Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published. Her latest novel, Sugar Island (John Murray), is now out in paperback. Contact her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I agree. While you can research a place and get to know its history and layout, you’ve got to visit the place for it to really resonate in your writing. No amount of research will tell you how it feels, how it smells, how its people behave.

  2. What if your novel is set in outer space in the year 3011?? A talented writer should be able to place the reader in their world even if the writer hasn’t experienced that world. That’s where creativity and imagination comes in…

    But I’d love to travel to the places I write about! That would be sublime! Someday….

  3. Good point Ruth. That’s exactly what I was referring to when I said you could create a new world. But there could be aspects of your alien place that are connected, linked to or inspired by real places on earth…sounds like a good, long time needed to think and imagine anyhow!

  4. I live in Canada, my mysteries take place in England…before and during WWII. I’ve done all the research I can on the web (bless you Google Streetview), but this summer I’m heading over. I can’t time travel, but I can at least walk the same roads as my characters.

  5. I think travel creates amazing opportunities. I even have a tendency to blend things I’ve seen with where I want them to be. Just because I was struck by a grove of trees in Washington, doesn’t mean that’s where my story has to be set for me to use the description.
    I’ve found it is very difficult for me to write about where I live. I was born and raised in Mesa, Arizona and I feel like my boredom with the scenery translates into my writing. Therefore, traveling is a must for me. Thanks for the insight!

  6. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Sanjida!

  7. I think in-person travel would be great, but we don’t all have those resources. I’m working on a book – it starts in Wales – and I have never been there. The book has some to do with history, Wales, coal mining, my family. Though I had done a lot of research ahead of time, my trip to my roots in the coal fields of Pennsylvania helped enormously! The rest of the time, I use Google, books, websites, try to connect with the local writers and historical societies. Great post – sharing with my group.

  8. I love this post. I am about to head to Texas for a week of on-site research. Having lived in the northeast all my life, and wanting to “feel” the landscape, I made the decision to take the week off from work (without pay). We are indeed fortunate to live in a time when so many resources are available on-line, including, primary source diaries and memoirs, but what a gift to be able to visit.
    K.M., your blog has inspired me to finally take up the story that has been swirling in my head for more than 20 years. Thank you, thank you.

  9. I want to do something similar, but since my books are fantasy not quite the same: I want to travel to an island because I’ve been land-locked my entire life. I feel like being the opposite, being water-locked, would have subtle effects on culture and mindset. I want to make sure to capture that in a future novel. And if I’m wrong….oh well.

    Besides, I could visit Hawaii or the Bahamas for research. I’m running out of reasons not to ^_^

  10. Great article. Very interesting. I traveled to India a few times and I use India as a setting in my novel. You can’t really capture all the smells, etc w/o visiting. Or at least it makes it easier. Good read! Holly Michael

  11. Thanks for a great post, Sanjida. 😀
    I haven’t really been able to travel yet, so any real places I mention in my stories, I have to research.. usually online.
    I hope to travel around the country some in the near future, maybe find some new story ideas, and get unique perspectives on life. 😀

  12. Wow. Well I guess I’ll need to plan a trip to both Sweetwater, TX and Santa Fe, NM sometime soon. LOL I live in Texas, though, so it’s not too far of a stretch. ; ) Great post!

  13. I’d love to travel, unfortunately it’s not in the budget. I built a “world” in a futuristic society here on Earth. It still has places I’ve been in it. My biggest asset is pictures. They set up the area for me and my imagination draws in the rest.

  14. “…without being swayed by reality.” Isn’t that a perfect fiction-writing phrase? In my case, the reality made a huge difference. I travelled to Portugal to work on a historical fantasy, and I can’t imagine the book without having made that trip.

    But then, I love to travel, and with a family where both parents are trying to make a living on their creative work, I have to scheme to find ways to satisfy the travel bug. In this case, I went with a friend (who happens to be a photographer) to share expenses. Fortunately, Portugal was inexpensive. I highly recommend seeing the place you want to write about.

    I remember hearing people talk about the difference in the Twilight books once Meyer actually visited Forks. Maybe this is a regional phenomenon, but the word on the streets here in Washington was that readers picked up on the details being more original, more true. Did it make a difference in the quality of writing to others? Who knows. Of course, if you visit there now, you’ll see all kinds of places that have capitalized on the Twilight theme. I won’t quite do that for Lisbon, I’m sure, but I can tell you my manuscript wouldn’t be what it is now without having made that trip.

  15. I just came across this site.
    Love this post, interesting point of views, then again any interesting topic will have a variety of opinion.
    Because of the internet, on line access to libraries, journals anywhere in the world, I think you can write about a place without having actually been there. However the actual going does provide your senses with experiences no book can match The Isle of Skye in Scotland and the western Highlands far exceeded the picture I had formed in my mind.

  16. You might not have to travel to where your story is set but I believe every great writer should live life to the max and make the most of every given opportunity … that’s the difference. If you live your life with a very narrow mind then I believe that attitude will manifest itself through your manuscript, making a dull and boring read.

  17. Wow, some great comments! Sounds like many of you think it’s good to travel as it broadens both the mind and adds insights to your books that you might not have had – or else you’re setting books in times and places that don’t exist here.

    Really good point from Christelle Hobby – you can use a description from one place in a particular time period in another place and time.

    Deborah Botham is being very brave, setting off on an unpaid research trip. Good for you!

    I agree with LK Watts and Deb Lund: I like to travel anyway. Right now I feel a bit stuck given I have a small daughter and we only get as far as the park! But I’m hoping that by the time I have finished the novel I’m working on and started the next, she’ll be big enough to come with me. And I’ll have sold my novel and have some way of funding my research trip / holiday!

    All the best to you all, Sanjida

  18. Makes sense. Perhaps this is a good way one can apply the “write what you know” advice we all hear every year.

  19. A complete coincidence…but I have an article in the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) on Saturday 31 about travelling to St Simons island to research Sugar Island – if anyone is interested!

  20. I do agree that actually visiting the place you are writing about is beneficial and can cause you to write more realistically, draw in the readers. However, lots of people (including myself) don’t have the time or money to travel; I don’t think that should hinder them from writing about what they love. I’m writing a historical romance novel set in Wyoming, and I’ve never visited there. I did lot of research and I’ve read so many books set in similar settings that I feel confident with my work. And also, the historical aspect (which was mentioned) – you can’t travel back in time and experience say the 1800s and how people acted and felt – that too has to come from research. So again, while I agree that visiting the setting in which you want to write is valuable, I wouldn’t let that hinder you from writing what you want.

  21. I’m writing something set in 1800s America. When i turned 21 a couple years ago i got my class A license and drove a semi across America. I hated everything about that lifestyle except for the scenery. One morning I had driven through most the night in Georgia and then when the sun crawled over the horizon and i could see just how beautiful this place was. On either side of the one-way interstates were the greenest trees I had ever seen. Between the roads was just an endless field of flowers of every color! Writing had always been my dream and I decided right there that, that would be the setting for my first novel. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.