With the invention of the internet and the ease of access to an endless supply of research materials, practically every aspect of the writing process can occur on a home computer. We all know the cliché of the writer who holes themselves up in their house and spends days upon days in a disheveled state writing their book. While I always encourage writers to get out of their house and write somewhere else once in a while (especially when they have writer’s block), many successful writers have found what works for them, and it often involves a routine centered on making themselves the most productive they can be. Depending on their home situation, they could very well spend most of their time writing from the comfort of their favorite desk or table.
Unfortunately, a limitation of spending so much of the writing process indoors is that some of the best research needs to happen in the field. One of the best ways I’ve found to increase the realism of the settings in my writing is to go out and experience them. For instance, I roughly knew how long it took to climb a mountain when I included a similar scenario in my first novel, First Name Basis. Similarly, I felt comfortable using San Francisco for a setting in my “Ironed Man” short story because I had visited there many times and was familiar with the layout and the geography of the city.
To better understand a setting, you should visit it!
As part of my research for the upcoming “Slumberealm” trilogy I plan to write in a few years, I decided to take advantage of a vacation to New York City (the setting of the novels) to obtain a better understanding of what the main characters might experience in their day-to-day lives. While this wasn’t the primary purpose of my trip, I did learn many valuable realities of the area. I learned that the public transit system (mainly the subway) is an incredibly useful tool for getting around the city and its different boroughs. I learned that it can be tiring to walk distances that I normally wouldn’t give much thought to, mostly because they’re on city streets and not mountain trails. I learned how small the apartments in New York City can be and how challenging it is to find a good grocery store nearby in certain areas. All of these experiences helped me to not only get into my characters’ heads but also to create memories I can pull from in my writing.
It has often been said, “Write what you know,” and I can’t think of any better way to “know” a place than to travel there. This being said, I know many writers might not have the financial ability to go to some of the cities they want to use in their writing. In fact, there are some settings I probably can’t visit until I retire from my day job, mostly because some countries aren’t considered “friendly” to America in general. In these situations, the best advice I can give is to pick up a travel guide. You can either buy them from the bookstore or borrow them from the library, but they are an incredible resource that can almost transport you there. Sure, the internet is also a useful resource, but these travel books have a lot of the information you’d find on a lot of different sites collected into a single, easily readable format.
Even if you can’t travel there, read up on the location.
“But-” I hear you cry, “I don’t write in genres set in the real world. I write fantasy or science fiction.” I still hold that getting out of the house and experiencing our world will help you add realism to your settings. Let’s take The Lord of the Rings as an example: there is a lot of hiking and walking in this trilogy, over a wide variety of terrains. If you want to create a fantasy world set in a less-industrialized era, get out in the great outdoors, and experience it for yourself! Go on hikes in lots of different climates, spend some time in a rainstorm in the woods, or climb a mountain to learn how it feels. If your setting is more science-fiction based, you should spend some time in cities. Think about how future technology would make them different (for better or for worse). At any rate, to make your writing more realistic, you have to go out and experience reality!
Where have you gone before that you can use as a setting in your writing?
Where do you want to go to bring realism to your settings?
Don’t let the writing process bog you down, get out there and do some research in the field!