Location, Location, Location: Researching Place

by Suzanne Lieurance

Sure, location may be the most important factor for realtors and homeowners.

It’s also a major concern for writers, yet most don’t have the luxury of working on location.

Instead, they do the majority of their work at home, using a variety of research techniques to make specific locales come alive for their audiences.

Here’s how to uncover those special details that let readers know you’ve been to the places you’re writing about—even if you haven’t!

Travel Electronically

Lisa Harkrader lives in a small town in Kansas.

When she was writing a novel set in the Australian outback, she needed to find out how to throw a nonreturning boomerang.

She couldn’t just take off for Down Under.

Instead, Harkrader traveled the Internet.

She located a website for a company in Australia that sells boomerangs.

“I e-mailed the company, explaining who I was and what I was doing, and asked if they knew where I could find the information I needed,” says Harkrader. “They e-mailed back with very detailed instructions on how to throw a nonreturning boomerang. These are the kinds of details that are hard to uncover when you can’t actually visit a place, so you have to be creative and relentless in tracking them down.”

Julia Beiker also lives in Kansas.

When she was writing a story that takes place in Italy, she journeyed through the Internet, too.

She joined an Italian genealogy group online to get a feel for how to enhance her story.

Beiker says, “An Italian professor gave me expressions that would have been used by a boy during the time period of my story.”

Now, here’s a switch.

Kristin Nitz lived in Italy for several years and wrote a novel set in Tuscany.

“I used Yahoo (search engine) to look at rentals in the Italian countryside,” Nitz says. “The house and grounds I created for my setting are a composite of several of those villas.”

Kim Williams-Justesen writes travel guides and usually does visit most of the places she includes in her guides.

Yet she also goes online for some of her research.

“I look at the government sites because it’s amazing what you can find there, especially for state and national parks and historic sites,” says Williams-Justesen. “I visit travel sites that might have reviews of places that I’m going to review—but I do this after I’ve visited a particular site, so their review doesn’t color my own perception.”

When Jane Buchanan, who writes historical fiction for kids, was working on a picture book set in 1910 Dorchester, Massachusetts, about a Polish family’s first Thanksgiving celebration, she found, “The hardest part of that story was finding confirmation that factories in the Boston area would have been operating on Thanksgiving Day in 1910. For that, I used the Internet. I found articles on the library’s magazine article index and tracked down their authors on the Web. I also came across a labor history listserv and people there were most helpful.”

Study Maps

For writer Nancy Ferrell, the first step to researching location is to “obtain a map, as detailed as I can get, for the city and country I’m writing about. A map lets the writer know how far it is from point A to point B—important information that’s often needed to make the action of the story credible.”

Wendie Old, who was a children’s librarian for more than 30 years, and writes fiction and nonfiction, agrees. “It helps to have a map. That way you’re consistent as you move your characters from place to place.”
Maps can be obtained from your local library, but the Internet is also a good place to find all kinds, everything from highway to weather maps.

When you’re writing a historical book and “not on the scene,” says Suzanne Hilton, author of over 20 books, “one aid is a topographical map that shows just the mountains, streams, and such—no highways, etc.”

She recommends the Library of Congress for “extremely early maps.”

Contact the Library of Congress also about travel brochures, flyers, and pamphlets.

The picture books of Verla Kay take place in a variety of locations.

Kay has written about the California Gold Rush, the railroad, covered wagons, and many other elements of U.S. history.

“I’ve written successfully about places I’ve never been,” says Kay, “but it’s much easier when I’ve been there in person.”

She obtains brochures, flyers, and pamphlets from chambers of commerce, travel agencies, and the local visitors’ bureaus for the locations she writes about, as a starting point for her research.

Williams-Justesen also sends away for materials.

In one of her children’s stories, a young girl goes to Ontario in search of a long-lost uncle.

To find out about Ontario, she says, “I sent away for brochures and maps and got a lot of really good stuff for free.”

Many Ways to Research Location

As you can see, there are many ways to research location.

Next month, you’ll learn additional ways in Part Two of Location, Location, Location.

For more writing tips, be sure to visit writebythesea.com and get your free subscription to The Morning Nudge. Once you're a subscriber, you'll also have access to a Private Resource Library for Writers.

Suzanne Lieurance is the author of over 35 published books, a freelance writer, and a writing coach.


Terry Whalin said...


What a great series of ideas and practical examples in stories of how to do research from a distance--without actually going to those places. Thank you,


Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, excellent article. When I wrote "Walking Through Walls," which is set in ancient China, I did a lot of online research and even spoke to an older Chinese author I knew at the time. He gave me a few tips. Thanks for sharing!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hey Terry and Karen,

I loved finding out how various authors research locations. Now...I can't figure out how to reply to your comments individually. Yikes!

Karen Cioffi said...

Yeah, Blogger is a pain - I had to remove the comments with threads. I forgot now what was wrong with it, but it was something. :)
You'd think as a Google product, they'd up their game.

deborah lyn said...

Great and interesting post Suzanne! I love traveling via the internet, to so many places and times I can use in my writing, that I'd never be able to visit in person!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Thanks, Deborah. Using the Internet for research is so much fun!

Happy researching and writing!

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