On Monday I wrote about watching Bigfoot Files on 4OD. I found the programmes fascinating both because it was research for a book I hope to one day write, and because, well, I love that kind of stuff.
With ideas bouncing round my head for a potential Bigfoot storyline, a worrying thought occurred to me. I had hoped to set the story in America, but I’ve never been to any of the areas where there have been Bigfoot sightings.
Can you write about places you’ve never been?
In the first incarnation of my werewolf hunter series (the novel formerly known as the-novel-formerly-known-as-Silver), my heroine bounces around the country and the only clear location is one in Cornwall. This is because I hadn’t really put much thought into where she should be based, if anywhere, and I had once visited Tintagel in Cornwall which seemed to me the perfect place for a werewolf hunt. Now, as I gear up to rewrite that novel, I’ve decided that she should have a base and it should be somewhere that I love; Bristol, the city I now live in.
I think this a perfect location for what I hope will be a long running series. It’s easy for me to get into the city and it is so multi-layered with such a varied history that despite living here for five years, I’m still always discovering new places.
The novel I have just completed is set in a complete fantasy world, but it is based on Edinburgh. Edinburgh caught my imagination three years ago when I first visited, and I haven’t been able to stay away long, visiting at least once every year. Like Bristol, Edinburgh is a hub of history and culture but the vibe of Edinburgh is very different to that of Bristol. The setting fitted my novel perfectly.
While writing a novel about Bigfoot should be the perfect excuse to visit America and go on a Bigfoot hunt myself, I simply can’t afford to. So does this mean I need to abandon those plans? Will my werewolf hunter only ever venture around the UK, until I become a bestseller/win the lottery?
Of course not. Writers can put their characters into locations that they’ve never been, just as they can put them into situations that they’ve never been in. It’s just a matter of hard work and research and the internet makes this process much easier. We really are living in the golden age (at least until teleporters are invented).
To research your chosen location, you can check out any documentaries, travel brochures, blogs and Trip Advisor. Social media can also be your friend. Use Twitter to network with people across the world and ask them if they would mind an informal interview about your chosen area. YouTube can offer visual insights to locations and also a taste of the culture, and local lingo and attitudes.
Google really is your best friend though. Search for the location and read of other people’s experiences. And don’t forget to try out Google Earth. Actually put yourself on the streets that your character will walk, although be aware that some Google Earth streets are already very outdated due to redevelopment (the London Olympics site being one fine example).
Google Earth won’t help me much in the forests of America – if they could, there probably wouldn’t be much mystery over Bigfoot anymore. But it will help me when it comes to ideas of hotels, roads and distances.
Of course, people can get it wrong. Ben Aaronovitch did in his brilliant Peter Grant series. I grew up in Essex and Peter seems to find himself travelling into the county regularly. In Broken Homes, he travels to Chelmsford, where I grew up. While I recognised the places, some of the finer details just didn’t gel. I had to step away from it, pretend I’d never been there and just enjoy the story.
So maybe a lesson can be learnt from this, put in detail, but only enough detail necessary for the story.
Research should be undertaken, although care much be taken not to overload your reader with every tiny piece of information you find. Every writer wants their story to be believable, even fantasy writers. But I am still of the belief that writers can use a little artistic licence. Why shouldn’t I be able to create a new motel for my heroine to stay in during her time in Bigfoot country? As long as it fits into the culture and scenery. As long as I’ve done my research. As long as it is believable.