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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wednesday Writer Tip: How to Set a Story in a Place You've Never Visited

Writers today may not expound endlessly on the weather or the environment the way our predecessors did, but make no mistake: Place matters. Sometimes it's a character in itself. Think New York City in books like Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney and Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities; Paris in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; or this fabulous passage from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles, describing Dartmoor:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one's soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you but, on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hill-sides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

But suppose you long to write about Dartmoor and haven't ever been there? Can it be done?

Sure it can.

Some places are easier to research than others, of course. But let's pick a random spot I've never been to: New Orleans, Louisiana.

If you're determined to set your tale in the Big Easy, of course you're best off making a research trip there. But suppose you're limited by time and cash?

Start off at your local library (because books are free there). Here's what you'll look for:

  • travel guides like Fodor's New Orleans (in the 917s)
  • history like The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury (in the 976s)
  • oral histories like Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond by D'Ann R. Penner et al.
  • video documentaries like Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans
  • phone books / Yellow Pages
  • maps

Of these, you'll want to acquaint yourself with the general stuff first--the neighborhoods, the best-known restaurants, the music venues.Then, dig into the history to see how the city became what it is today. In a place like New Orleans, music is big: listen to the old stuff that built the city and what the musicians are playing right now.

We all know that the internet contains a lot of bogus information. But some if it is quite useful. Go on sites like and read what visitors to New Orleans thought of the place. What are their impressions? What surprised them? Where are the best places to eat? Don't base your facts on these impressions, but do note that this is how the place affects real people. They're opinions; your characters, too, will have opinions.

Google Maps
Google Maps with Streetview can be handy when checking out a specific neighborhood. If you've never tried streetview, go to Google Maps and search for a specific address, like:

713 St. Louis Street New Orleans

This happens to be the address of a famous old restaurant called Antoine's. The page opens and shows the map, and on the left, a photo of Antoine's with a little orange person-figure in the corner. Click on that to open the streetview, and you can virtually stroll down St. Louis Street and see what the neighborhood is really like.

Streetview shows you some interesting things--the pink building next door to the restaurant, the praline shop across the street, and what kind of street it is (one-way only, fairly narrow). Use your cursor to travel up and down the block to see the nearest intersection and what else there is of interest nearby.

While you're at it, go to Here you'll find Antoine's colorful history, a photo gallery of its 14 dining rooms, and its menu and prices. There's even a video tour of the place.

Make a Bulletin Board
Find photos wherever you can. You're not using them for anything but your own personal purposes, so you don't have to worry about copyright. Google Images will give you more photos than you'll ever need. You can pin them to a Pinterest board (though copyright may be an issue if you go this route), or just paste them into a Word document or print them out. Immerse yourself in the look and feel of your place.

You'll need to know some rather dry information to get an idea of the area you're researching. Look up census records for the time period you want, and look for the racial and ethnic mix of the population, the average income, and other factors. See if you can find out things like how politically active the population is, what are their leanings, and how active different groups are.

Does the city have mass transportation? If so, is it widely used?  When we Google "getting around New Orleans," we have access to streetcar routes, fares, pedicabs (!), and walking tours, along with advice for each. Again, check tripadvisor: Often travelers will say something like, "The guidebooks told us the streetcar was easy. It isn't!"

Find Experts
Time to look for universities or colleges near your target town. In New Orleans, opportunities are many. Go to websites for universities like Loyola or Tulane and check the staff list. Or Google local historical societies. Find someone who specializes in local history or culture and wants to talk about it. Email those folks about your project. The worst they can do is say no, and it won't be to your face. If possible, make an appointment to talk to your expert via Skype so you can get something of the flavor the area, which will be lost in a strictly written correspondence.

Note that the Louisiana Historical Society website not only includes information of its own, but also helpful links to the state museum and libraries. Remember that New Orleans is a passion for these folks--wouldn't they just love to talk to you about it?

Be sure to ask your expert for other sources. And don't be afraid to approach librarians, either. They live for this kind of stuff. Trust me.

If at all possible, find someone who knows the area you're researching and ask them to read your manuscript for errors. If you've totally failed to capture the flavor of the place, you'll want to know. And naturally, you'll thank that reader in your acknowledgments. 

These are just some ideas to get you started. With a little diligence and creativity, you can write about anyplace (or time) in the world.

images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:  
Dartmoor: image by Herbythyme and licensed under these Creative Commons licenses: 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and  1.0 Generic.
New Orleans: image by and licensed under this Creative Commons License.

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