Four Ways to Get Your Setting Right – Even If You Haven’t Been There

travel writing old-1130735_960_720It’s hard enough to write about a place you know well. What do you do when your story takes place somewhere you’ve never been?

Let’s say you have a great idea for a novel set in Granada, Spain, but you’ve never been outside the USA. How do you make the setting realistic? More to the point, how do you keep from making the sort of gaffe that will make readers who have been there throw your book across the room?

Fortunately, we have suggestions. Check these out:

1) Your favorite internet search engine. (I call mine Mama Google.) This will likely be your first stop. A quick search will give you a wealth of information – everything from the local currency to the local language to where the tourists go. Maps can show you topographical features like mountains, rivers, and even intersections that could ice over in a snowstorm. You can also find photos of the place where your story is set, but be careful – Google’s image search feature will sometimes pull up photos that are only tangentially related to your original search. To pinpoint a destination, I’d suggest…

2) Google Earth.  Our fabulous admin, K.S. Brooks, wrote about how she needed a tall building in Vienna for a scene in one of her novels, and found it by using this program. These days, Google Earth has a web version, but you can also download a version that you can use offline. You can get right down to street level in many places, thanks to Google’s desire to map every street anywhere for its mapping application. If you’re going to have a scene inside a building, where Google’s car can’t go, Google Earth also includes photos taken by people who have been there. But that won’t get you a map of the place. For that, we recommend…

3) A tourist guidebook. Buying guidebooks can be expensive, but this option need not break the bank; your local library probably has some. Another source would be a used bookstore. The older guidebook editions you’ll find in those places won’t have the most up-to-date prices for hotels and restaurants, but that’s likely not what you’re after anyway. What they will have is interior maps of big tourist sites. The Eyewitness Guides are particularly good for this, I have found; they include three-dimensional maps, so you can see at a glance exactly where in the Alhambra your hero would have to lurk in order to capture the attention of your heroine. Or kill her. Whatever floats your boat.

Every guidebook I’ve ever seen also has a section on the country’s history, culture, travel connections, and even common phrases in the local language – all of it fodder for making your story more realistic.

However, I would recommend using Mama Google as a backup. If, for example, you plan to have your characters eat at a particular restaurant, you might want to look up the restaurant’s website from the URL listed in your guidebook to find out whether the place is still in business.

But even that may not save you from every gaffe. So there’s always…

4) Talking to people who have been there. If your friends aren’t particularly well-traveled, you could ask around in a Facebook writing group. I’d be happy to bore you silly with details of my trip to Granada, including the buskers playing classical guitar outside the entrance to the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish king and queen who bankrolled Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Oh, you didn’t know they were buried there? Let me tell you about it…

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

11 thoughts on “Four Ways to Get Your Setting Right – Even If You Haven’t Been There”

  1. Excellent post, Lynne. That’s a subject that has been a challenge for me on a couple of books, and I never would have thought about the guide book–brilliant! I will definitely keep that in mind, and as far as I’m concerned, the price will be well worth having my story be authentic. Thanks for sharing!

  2. When I needed information about Guatemala, I asked other authors who had been there and they gave me great info. I also found a blogger who was born there, lived in the United States, and was back living there. She helped me get things authentic and was my sensitivity reader. Just as I have a person who lives on the Reservation my character in my Shandra Higheagle Mysteries visits often, who helps me with sensitivity issues and makes sure I stay true to the lifestyle there.

  3. Thank you for the handy ideas on researching locations.

    I also found historic maps online, in my new civil war novel. Here’s another tip for creating the setting: I Googled the years prior to and during my story for historical events for figures my characters might know or mention in conversation. I used an Almanac to get the area weather right for that time of year and the plants proper growing season. I used the correct sunrise and sunset time in my story to help set some scenes. Determining the temperatures identified the types of clothing my characters wore. For example, in one crucial night scene, I included the correct half-moon phase for my characters to have just enough light to see something happen and then have a cloud momentarily block the moonlight so someone else could escape. I hope this helps someone.

  4. May I add to your suggestions Lyn by saying that the most important of all your excellent list is that one about talking to people who have been there. That’s the way you’ll find out about scents and sound which make the reader feel they are in the place.
    Reading a general history book of the place can really help too.

    I have winced over Indie books with Victorian morning calls at 10 a.m., decimal currency used before decimalisation and an Australian summer in June, with cars on the right in New Zealand and Japan! (You don’t cross the road to make a left hand turn when you drive on the left!)

    1. LoL I love your comment about the cars, oh so true. Also, authors often mess up on distances, the other year, I stopped reading a book on the second page when the protagonist raced from Washington DC to New York City in two hours, without stopping to pay tolls on the Jersey Turnpike or else where LoL.

  5. I’ve been using Google Earth and Google Maps, including the Street View feature, for some years now. At least from the visual angle, it’s almost like being there. But there is a lot it can’t tell you, so thank you and those who commented for the additional suggestions. Much appreciated!

  6. My current wip takes place in 1685, a small market town in Kent, England. Using Google, I discovered the town’s historical society website with a wealth of information and photos, Unfortunately cameras were not around in the 17th century.

    1. Hi Carole,

      If you are looking for some excellent historical background and perspective, check out Peter Ackroyd’s history of England series, especially the 1st two books “Foundation” and “The Tudors” among other books by him.

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