How Important Is It for Authors to Do On-Location Research?

How Important Is It for Authors to Do On-Location Research?

Location, location, location: That triple endorsement of any piece of real estate’s prime value also serves to remind writers of our need to do on-location research of the venues that star in our story worlds. Or, to corrupt one of our profession’s prime idioms: every once in a while you need to get your rear out of the chair.

Bryand Sandy Wiggins in Maine's Baxter State Park

I packed my bro (right) along for the trek through my tale.

That lesson was one I found I needed to take to heart a few months ago, as I worked my way through the later stages of my work in progress Autumn Imago. My story of familial redemption is set in the wilds of Maine’s Baxter State Park, and though I’ve made my annual pilgrimage for thirty-five years to the place I consider my “spiritual home,” there were still lessons to be learned there that I couldn’t mine from memory alone.

Or the Internet. I started there, of course, loading my Scrivener file with a mountain of jpegs and blog posts that captured the tales of others who’d hiked over and around Katahdin—the jewel in Baxter’s crown. My daughter’s upcoming wedding at the end of August threatened to make that summer one of the rare ones when I didn’t visit the park. But my brother Sandy’s request to backpack through it to celebrate his sixtieth birthday gave me the excuse I needed to take a trip that would serve both of our passions for the place—and my story as well.

Don’t Just Write Your Notes–Draw Them

Before I ever hit the trail, I trimmed as much weight as I could from the load I’d carry. But there was no question my notebook was going with me. My iPhone would make the cut too—but only because of its camera (making a cell call from Baxter makes about as much sense as writing emails in church). But the notebook would serve me in ways a camera couldn’t. Any writer knows the muse sings a different tune when you take her dictation with ink instead of electronics. The simple act of writing by hand transforms a pen into a psychic seismograph—an instrument capable of tracing the faintest of notions that may predict the rumblings of a groundbreaking story.

Like a lot else in my pack, my notebook earned its weight by doing double duty. I planned to put a lot more than my words into the thing. Whether the sketches you’ve produced in the past look like Rembrandts or rubbish, I recommend any writer doing on-location research to pack a pencil along. Recording observations with lines instead of words creates a powerful new portal for channeling your interpretation of the world. Drawing opens up the possibility of capturing impressions of experiences from a unique perspective that grants compelling insights into the worlds we create. And isn’t that exactly what we’re after when we turn to words to do the work?

Bryan Wiggins's sketchbook

Pencil and pen are key supplies for capturing details on the trail.

Plan to Be Surprised

When we reached our first campsite in the backcountry, I dropped my pack and set out to scout the location I’d planned for one of Autumn Imago’s key scenes. Russell Pond shines like a small, blue jewel set amid the low green peaks north of Mount Katahdin. It made the perfect place to amp up the romantic tension in my tale.

My plot places my protagonist (Paul) there with the woman (Cassie) who represents his best chance for breaking through the emotional isolation he shields himself in as protection from his family’s painful past. The pivotal scene takes place in a lean-to just off the pond.

Lean-to in Maine's Baxter National Park

New insights dawned far from the beaten path.

As I approached the shelter, I saw the setting sun shining right behind its roof. Looking from it to the shadowy interior blinded me for a moment, my vision slowly returning to let me focus inside. That change of vision is something I would never have thought to invent while tapping away at my keyboard. But it was the perfect metaphor to echo Paul’s dawning awareness of the opportunity for love that waited before him.

Beat the Bushes for Details

Two days later, as Sandy and I hiked across the broad expanse of Katahdin’s Northwest Plateau, I kept my eyes wide open for more details to spice up my story. But as any good writing coach will tell you, sometimes the strongest pictures we can paint for our readers are colored by our other senses.

A rest stop amid the low brush that covered the airy plain we traversed provided new juice for my narrative. There, mixed among the sedges, sparkled a bonanza of bright berries.

Wild blueberries and Indian Tea berries

A small focus on key details can make a big impact on readers.

I picked a handful of tiny wild blueberries and added a generous smattering of Indian Tea as well. The taste of that fresh, minty berry was a bright counterpoint to the dense sweetness of the blueberries—a contrast I would later capture in a small vignette that underscored Paul’s boundless appetite for the wild world he worked in. I kept that sensual awareness alive for the rest of the trip as well. It would later serve to lace my story with the bracing cold of icy streams, the sharp scent of wood smoke, and the ever-present whisper of the wind among the trees.

Live in the Fantasy

When we’d almost reached the edge of the plateau, my brother asked me if I wanted to detour over the summit before descending to our last night’s campsite at Chimney Pond. I was tempted, but the gifts I’d already harvested for Autumn Imago left me greedy for more. Sandy quickly agreed to my suggestion that we keep following the path I’d plotted through my book and hike down Hamlin Ridge—the same route Paul and his estranged brother, Tommy took.

Months ago, I’d chosen the setting from the comfort of my dining room table. But as I walked through it now and watched the way the light split that ridge—with one glacial basin shining, the other in shadow—it illuminated both characters in a way that would allow them to deliver dialogue to me weeks later that captured the full power of the place. The contrasting valleys made a fitting frame for the conversation Paul and Tommy would have. As they stood on the divide, Paul would voice an admiration for their father that would clash sharply with Tommy’s criticism of the man.

Sketch of Hamlin Ridge Trail by Bryan Wiggins

Richer pictures emerge from time spent scouting your story world.

The lesson I took from that windswept ridge was the same one that echoed along the streams and from the depths of the forests Sandy and I hiked for those magical three days. It was a reminder that on-location research allows us to walk through the physical worlds we create as writers and lets us fully live in the fantasies we create. The stories we tell when we return from those journeys are the kind every eager reader craves.

Tell me your opinion: Have you done or do you plan to do any on-location research for any of your stories?

How Important Is It for Authors to Do On-Location Research?

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About Bryan Wiggins | @brywig

Bryan Wiggins is an ad agency Creative Director and freelance writer whose personal essays have been published in Canoe & Kayak, Sea Kayaker, and The Maine Review. He also gives regular presentations of “Mastering Your Muse: Strategies and Software for Shaping Inspiration,” an in-depth, illustrated overview of his writing process that has been sponsored by the Maine Writers
and Publishers Alliance and “The Muse and the Marketplace” literary conference in Boston. He blogs regularly about writing.

Comments

  1. Very! I made a very successful return trip to the location of my novel. I could never have gained all the insights I acquired if I had stayed with books, Internet and e-mail. See http://www.aquilaelba.info/successful-trip/

  2. Your trip to Elba has me itching to hop the pond to do that kind of remote location research as well. My post detailed how wilderness taught me the lessons that made my story richer. Yours reminds us that visits to other locations that are home to foreign cultures can do the same thing in a very different way. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I found the opposite to happen for me when I go to a location. If I’ve never been, I let my mind wander and try to see it with the words, describing it for myself as well as the reader. I get a better vision and description of the place if I’m trying to “see” it myself. I’ve noticed with my own writing that if I’ve been to a location, I gloss over details because ‘I know that’ and don’t explore it.

  4. Interesting perspective, Heather. Whether you visit your location or not, trying to “see” it for yourself in your mind’s eye before sharing it with the reader is, indeed, key. For my part, however, the sensual vocabulary I can draw upon for that imagining is broadened and enriched by my experiences in the physical worlds I’m trying to recreate upon the page.

  5. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Bryan!

  6. I’m planning to go on location this July in the West Indies for my next historical novel. Very excited to go!!

  7. Lovely work Bryan and lovely blog KM.

  8. I love reading your experience with location research. Your deeper awareness of the sun caught my attention. Light has a stong (often overlooked) influence. Wonderful!

    • Your right, Audra. Though writers are often schooled to focus on the other 4 senses because of sight’s dominance, paying attention to light is a way to offer a deeper perspective on the visual world. My description of the sun’s rays angling through a dark ravine to spotlight hatching flies that looked like rising golden snowflakes was one of the scenes I hope reflected that wisdom in my novel.

  9. I have fictional worlds of my own creation, you could say I know them as good as the back of my hand. Physically going to them is a LITTLE impossible at the moment. I also have no wish to visit a jungle, rainforest, or island. But the main place my story takes place in is a desert; more spifically, a desert of red sand. I have been to Arches National Park in Utah USA and it is vividly in my mind as I write the scenes with the desert. Being somewhere your writing in is very helpful, most of the time.

    • Arches sounds like an amazing place to build a story from, Kelly. The open space, light and heat of a desert environment sounds like an intriguing place to explore to harvest materials for the fictional realms you create.

  10. Good timing on the article. I talked to my mom earlier today telling her that I needed to go to Chicago for some hands-on research. Then, I came here to get caught up for the week and read this article. I think this seals the deal. I’m going.

    It’s the details that you voiced in your article that you can’t get from the Internet which will help to give depth and life to your story. You mentioned sight (of course) and taste, but I also love to bring smell into my descriptions, when possible, since it seems to elicit a very personal response.

    Thanks for the article. I found it very helpful.

  11. Thanks, Todd, for letting me know that my experience with on-location research helped inspire you to do the same. Your trip to Chicago should provide you with some details on the look and feel of that location that are very different from the ones I referenced about Baxter State Park. Capturing the rich complexities of an urban landscape sounds like an engaging challenge that will pay off for your readers. Bon voyage!

  12. Bryan, your cousin Kim G. pointed me in your direction and I’m glad she did. A terrifically well-written post here, which has provided me with several new ideas (e.g., sketching what I see vs. merely using words to describe it) which I intend to deploy over the next few months as I research locations (including Ireland) for my WIP. Many thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  13. How hard is to make a fictional place? For example: I’m planning a story set in a fictional village in Northern China. Should I look up chinese culture and make my village from there?

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  1. […] Or the Internet. I started there, of course, loading my Scrivener file with a mountain of jpegs and blog posts that captured the tales of others who’d hiked over and around Katahdin—the jewel in Baxter’s crown. My daughter’s …read more […]

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