How to research a location you haven’t actually been to #amwriting

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, or read any of my books, you’ll know how important setting is to me in my writing. In this post about Richmond Park, for example, I wrote about how I tried to combine the setting for The Antique Love with the theme of the book, and how I used the setting to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of my characters.

the antique love, helena fairfax, richmond park
Richmond-upon-Thames, setting for The Antique Love

So far I’ve been able to visit most of the locations I’ve used in my books. My settings range from Edinburgh to the south coast of France, and they are all within easy reach for me. But sometimes it’s just not possible to get to the place you want to write about. I used to agonise about this. I like to “see” exactly what it is my characters see. But I’ve gradually stepped out of my comfort zone and written about places I haven’t been to myself. I wrote about a parachute jump in A Way from Heart to Heart, for example. I’m terrified of heights, and there is absolutely no way you’d get me to jump out of a plane, but I wrote a realistic (I hope) scene in which the hero is with his instructor, steps out of a plane door, how he feels as he does so, and how he lands. (He’s in a state of terror pretty much the whole time – he shares my fear of heights, and I could easily write his feelings!)

In 2007 Stef Penney won the Costa Prize for The Tenderness of Wolves. She did all her research in the British Library, and yet the book is set in a bleak landscape in northern Canada, and this landscape is an integral part of the story. The author is agoraphobic and couldn’t get on a plane, and yet she wrote vivid, prize-winning descriptions. If you are able to research and you have a vivid imagination (both attributes of a writer) it’s possible to bring an unknown location alive for readers.

My next novel (coming out in July 2017) is called Felicity at the Cross Hotel. The setting is the Lake District, at a fictional lake called Emmswater, which is based on Ullswater. Ullswater is about three hours’ drive from me. I’ve been several times, but there were still occasions when I need to refresh my memory or check certain details. Here are some places I use for research:

  1. Instagram  A search on the hashtag #ullswater throws up literally thousands of photos. Here’s an example:

helena fairfax, romance, writing tips, saltaire2.  Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest are also great places to find photos. Flickr and Tumblr host travel blogs, as well as images. A search on the Lake District on Tumblr brought up this website of stunning photos. (I have my own profile on Pinterest, where I pin photos and articles on writing. Here’s my board for my book The Silk Romance, which has lots of photos of the setting in Lyon’s beautiful Croix-Rousse district.)

helena fairfax, editing services, romance editor
My collection of travel maps and guides

3. Buy maps and travel guides for the area you’re researching.

4. If there is a tourist information office in the location you’re writing about, get in touch with them. I’ve found the staff in these official offices are always very helpful. After all, their aim is to attract visitors to their area, and they are always interested and delighted to know that someone is writing a book set in their location.

5. YouTube was invaluable to me when researching my hero’s parachute jump. Everyone videos themselves nowadays, and YouTube is a fantastic source of real life footage – from a bungee jump in New Zealand, or a trip round Niagara Falls, or a wildlife hunt in East Africa.

6. Put a call out on social media and see if you can find someone who has been to that area. Most people are more than happy to share their experiences.

helena fairfax, romance editor, editing servicesThis stunning photo of Derwent Water was shared on Facebook by editor Helen Stevens of Saltaire Editorial Services, who kindly gave me permission to use it.

7. One of my favourite resources is Google Earth. Using this application you can travel all around the world from the comfort of your own armchair, zoom in and out, look at other people’s photos, and immerse yourself in the location.

8. I find Google maps Street View is even better than Google Earth. If you want to take your characters on a journey, you can put yourself at street level on the exact same roads they’d have to travel down. In Felicity at the Cross Hotel, my hero and heroine take a trip to the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Whitehaven. I used Google maps to go on that journey with them, and I was able to visualise exactly their walk along this harbour wall. It’s an amazing resource!

helena fairfax, romance editor, editorial services9. Read lots of other novels set in the same location. The website Trip Fiction is a great place to find books set all over the world. Just type in the location you’re after, and a whole list of suggested reading will come up.

When I’m reading a book set in a place I’ve been to, I love to recognise the landmarks as the story progresses, and to know I’ve stood on the same streets. I try to make my own settings as accurate as possible, so readers can do the same. Plus, the research is fun and I learn a lot from it!

* * *

If you’re a writer, do you have a favourite resource for research? If you’re a reader, how important is the setting for you? Do you look for books set in places you’ve actually visited? And does it through you out of the story if you find mistakes in the setting?

If you have any questions or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

12 thoughts on “How to research a location you haven’t actually been to #amwriting

    1. I like that about the setting being a character. I love books that transport you to their location, even if that’s a totally fictional world, like Westeros, or Narnia.
      So glad you liked the post. Thanks for dropping in!


  1. As a reader, the overall description is more important than location. However, I’m not a fan of big cities, so if there were two similar blurbs, with one set in a city and the other set in a quaint village, I would choose to read the one set in a village.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting about the village/city setting. I wanted to release this novel in the summer because I feel the setting – a small village in the Lakes – is more suitable for a summer read than winter. I prefer this type of setting, too, although I don’t mind the city when it’s a detective/thriller type novel. (I’ve only realised this after reading your comment!)
      Thanks very much for dropping in!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Helena. We started researching an upcoming trip to Eastern Europe yesterday. We use Google Earth, Google Maps, search on key words. We are big planners. For me, it’s half the fun of the trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Susan, that’s exciting that you’re going to Eastern Europe. I’ve been to Budapest in the east – which was beautiful – and to Dresden and Berlin. All three must be in my favourite European cities. I’d love to explore more in the east, and to go as far as somewhere like St Petersburg.
      Look forward to hearing all about your trip, and to seeing lots of photos. Thanks very much for your comment!


  3. Thank you for the great tips for virtually visiting settings for your books. I pretty much write about places I know or make up locations in stories based in the future. I enjoy researching topics for stories and sometimes to the extent of neglecting the story! Looking forward to your new release this year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JQ, I love to research, too. So many gorgeous photos on Flickr and Pinterest. I could get lost there for hours. I loved your setting of the funeral home for a murder mystery :) Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!


  4. Thanks for this interesting post, Helena – I hadn’t heard of Trip Fiction so I’ve just joined! The easiest research I’ve done so far was for my two Scottish novels (since I live here) but I like using other locations I’ve actually visited – have some in the pipeline!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you may be able to add your Scottish books to the Trip Fiction site, Rosemary. I have The Silk Romance on the site, as the setting is in Lyon, and I wrote a post for them when the book first came out, all about the silk-weaving district in the city. It’s a great site to explore if you’re going on holiday.
      That’s exciting about the stories in the pipeline. Thanks very much for dropping in!


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