Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Many travelers tramp through Europe like they’re visiting the cultural zoo. “Ooh, that guy in lederhosen yodeled! Excuse me, could you do that again in the sunshine so I can get a good picture?” It’s important to stow your camera, roll up your sleeves, and enjoy the real thing.
– Rick Steves, ‘Becoming a Temporary European’
These wise words from Rick Steves are geared toward travelers, but I think the advice applies to writers too. A research trip is a valuable way to really get under the skin of a location. You can’t fully experience a place until you travel there, walk its streets, eat in its restaurants, and live like the locals do.
Now, don’t read that as me judging those who write without on-the-ground experience. Sometimes, going to a place you want to write about is physically impossible. You might not have the money or the time, or you might literally be born in the wrong century. No writer in our time can craft a firsthand account of Medieval Europe, for instance.
The point is, if you can go see the place for yourself, you should do it properly. Visiting as a clueless tourist can be fun, but a proper research trip is more than that. Approach it wrong and it’s a holiday, but approach it right and it can make a world of difference to your ability to write about that place with authenticity and authority.
So, if you’re lucky enough to get it, how can you make the most of this incredible opportunity? The following tips will help you make the most of your research trip.
Make a plan
Step 1 is to make a plan. Planning in advance is the best thing you can do to avoid coming home with a list of things you failed to accomplish. So, get out a pen and paper, or open a new Word document, and make a list.A research trip has fundamentally different goals to a holiday.Click To Tweet
What sensory elements do you want to experience? What locations do you need to visit? What cultural aspects do you need to witness?
It might seem simple enough to go and do the things your character will do in the places they will do them, but there’s more to world building than that. How do locals travel in the place your story is set? Is there a local dialect? What’s quirky about the weather where they live?
These and many more little details are easy to get wrong if you’ve never been to the place you hope to write about. Some are more trivial than others, but the point is that authenticity is yours for the taking. It’s the difference between a setting that feels uniquely real and one that doesn’t feel like anything at all.
Making a plan beforehand is your best bet for gaining all the insight and information you can during your trip.
Pack the right supplies
After determining your plan of action, you should make a list of supplies. Here are some common items to add to your list:
- Notebook and pen – You’ll want to take a notebook and a pen to collect your notes. While you can, of course, make notes on your phone or tablet, you’ll have to ensure you have enough battery power or worry about lugging around an extra device. In most circumstances, a plain notebook and pen are the best tools for this task.
- Snacks – If you’re going to be out and about all day traveling to multiple locations, you can save time and keep your energy up by packing snacks or even a light meal to eat on the go.
- Accessories – Think about items you’ll need to stay comfortable in each location you visit. Are you going to a spot with weather, terrain, or lighting conditions that will require a change of clothes? Don’t forget items like sunscreen, bug spray, sunglasses, etc. Be sure you have everything you need to be comfortable so you can focus on your work.
If you know the story you’ll be writing, it might even be worth wearing or carrying something similar to what the character will have on them. It might be extreme (and you should take a change of clothing if it’s not that sensible), but it will generate unique experiences that flesh out your narrative. If, for example, it turns out a particular route is packed with plants that snag loose clothing, your hero might be losing their cape sooner rather than later.Recreating a character’s journey can add unexpected details to your story.Click To Tweet
Aside from this kind of realism, ensuring you pack the right supplies for each destination can save you time and emotional stress, allowing you to immerse yourself in the experience.
Visit the right places (at the right times)
Be sure to plan in advance the right places to conduct your research – and don’t neglect to think about the time factor. Say you want to write a scene in a busy city on an average workday; in that case, you shouldn’t go for a visit on a Saturday morning. This seems like stating the obvious, but the point is to think in advance about the time and place that will give you the experiences you’ll need for your research.Locations change drastically depending on the time, so make sure your research planning accounts for this.Click To Tweet
Don’t forget to plan for secondary considerations: what transportation options do you have for getting there? Is there a place you can sit, observe, and take notes? Do you need a guide to help you navigate the area to which you’re traveling? Does your trip require tickets, reservations, or special access in advance?
While some of your most enlightening and magical experiences may arise spontaneously – and you should leave room for the unexpected – the way to make the most of your time is to handle all the logistics up front. This will allow you to be present in the moment, open yourself to the experience, and fill your well of creativity from which to draw when you’re ready to write.
Talk to the right people
One of your most important resources on a research trip will be the people who inhabit the place you plan to write about. Ask yourself in advance: who do I need to talk to?
Do you need the voice and insight of an expert or a professional? A local resident? A shop owner? A child at a city playground? A park ranger? A taxi driver?
If you can arrange beforehand to speak to the right people, that’s a plus. But maybe you just need to find one person or a few people to chat with on the spot. Whatever you do, make sure you get the person’s contact information if it feels appropriate so you can follow up with any questions you encounter later on.
Talking to strangers might feel intimidating for some writers, but most people like to be helpful and might even feel honored to play a role in helping you write your book. Who knows, you might even make some new friends along the way! Just be sure to be sensitive – a fantasy writer checking out the scenery has a lot more leeway than a true crime author getting the mood of a town that’s suffered through tragedy.A lot of people are more than happy to help a writer fill in details, so be gregarious as you research.Click To Tweet
Cultivate the right mindset
The general rule for preparing for a research trip is to plan as much as possible in advance so you can make the most of the opportunity. Now that we’ve discussed some tips and tricks for doing that, I can give you a more lighthearted bit of advice: Have fun!
A research trip may not be a vacation, but it can still be an adventure. Open yourself to the possibilities you haven’t prepared for. They just might turn out to be the most educational of all.
I’ll leave you with a few more wise words from Rick Steves: “If you’re hunting cultural peacocks, remember they fan out their tails best for people… not cameras. When you take [your destination] out of your viewfinder, you’re more likely to find it in your lap.”
How do you ensure a successful research trip? What’s one often overlooked thing you’d tell your fellow writers to watch out for? Tell us about something surprising that happened to you while you were out doing research, and check out What You Need To Know About Setting Your Fiction In Another Country and Should Authors Use Familiar Places As Story Settings?