Setting is an important part of any story. Whether it’s a memoir or a fiction novel, your story’s location can help set the tone of the story. It shows your character’s strengths and weaknesses and bolsters the overall theme of the novel. While visiting the location you plan to use in your book firsthand is always preferred, sometimes it’s not feasible. For example, my novel The Loch takes place in Balloch, Scotland. Scotland is on my bucket list, but I have yet to make it there.
So, what do you do when you want to write about a place you’ve never visited?
Research. And that doesn’t mean just reading about it in a book or online. With today’s technology, we can take virtual tours of all the places we want to visit. Since the onset of COVID-19, many museums and art galleries have added virtual tours to their websites. Imagine a scene in your next novel taking place at the British Museum. You can go to their website, take the virtual tour, and gather enough information to write the scene as if you had visited in person.When you combine research with your writer’s imagination, you can bring a location you’ve never visited to life. Your research isn’t limited to things like online articles and virtual tours. There are plenty of places you can use to research your setting.
Eight Places Online Great for Location Research
- Instagram – you can do a hashtag search to see what kind of content users have uploaded. Say you are researching Tokyo, Japan. Search #tokyo and you should find a plethora of photos ranging from tourist sites to more esoteric areas of the city.
- Tumblr, Pinterest, and Flickr – all three of these sites are fantastic for finding photos and travel blogs. Start with a search on the place you want to visit. Then watch your page fill up with photos and information that you can use in your book.
- Hit the local bookstore – travel guides and maps are another wonderful way of researching places you’ve never visited in order to get your settings as accurate as possible. Many travel guides have maps already within them. A large map of the area you are using for your setting can also help you layout the way your characters travel through a city or how long it takes to get from one side of the country to the other.
- Contact the local tourist information office – Since the goal of a tourist information office is to attract visitors to their city, they will love to hear from you. They are a resource most people don’t think of. If you tell them what type of information you’re looking for to include in your novel – say, the best local brewery – they will be able to steer you in the right direction. And probably offer you plenty of choices.
- YouTube – want to learn how to parasail? Jump on YouTube. People love to post videos of themselves and seeing real-life footage with real-life commentary can help put you in the moment. You’ll be able to tell if the person in the video is scared, exhilarated, happy…pick an emotion. From there you can use your imagination to describe the scene.
- Google Earth and Good Maps Street View – remember the map I mentioned above? Using Google Earth and Google Maps Street View, you can take a virtual walk through the city you’ve set your book in based on the path you laid out with your map. Both sites are great for immersing yourself in locations with views from the sky and the street.
- Reach out to your friends on social media – some of the best resources we have as authors are the people around us. Ask for travel stories and pictures. People are usually happy to share their experiences and help enrich your storytelling.
- Read books that take place in the same setting – say you want to place your novel in the Hawaiian Islands. The novel Hawaii by author James Michener is rich with history about Hawaii, starting with how the islands were formed. Jump onto Amazon and type in the search term you’re looking for and you should be able to find plenty of things to read.
Just because you’ve never been to a specific location doesn’t mean you should avoid using it as a setting in your novels. Think about what you want to happen in the location and then do your research. Take your time and really let your imagination run free. You’ll be able to create a story with a rich setting that makes your readers want to walk the streets you’ve described.