Columns > Published on October 12th, 2015

Writing the Unknown Setting: 8 Tips on Conducting a Research Trip for your WIP

In the age of social media, Google Earth, and everyone’s tendency to add “-gate” to the end of all mistakes, it’s more important than ever to get setting right. Location can be as important to one’s novel as the title or the main character’s backstory—but every now and then, you may need to set your book in a place you don’t know very well. 

This is the challenge I faced this year after deciding to set my new urban fantasy trilogy in Boulder, Colorado, a city where I’d never actually set foot (I assure you, it made perfect sense at the time). While I was still in the development phase of writing, I wanted to make sure that I was shaping the story in a way that was realistic to Boulder specifically. This would require boots on the ground.

So earlier this year, as I was writing Boundary Lines, I booked a (comically inexpensive) plane ticket for Colorado—and then I realized that I had no idea what to do when I arrived. How do you go somewhere for research without knowing what you need to research?

Luckily, you can learn from my trial-and-error experiments. Here are eight things you need to know before, during, and after a research trip for location:

Food is one of the easiest ways to communicate setting through minor details. Every city has that one restaurant where locals and tourists alike can eat in harmony.

Before You Go

1. Find a Designated Local

One of the big reasons I set my newest series in Boulder is because I have family there—my cousin Brieta. She’s my insider knowledge, the person who can tell me what actual Boulder residents do for fun, what they have to pay in taxes, and how they generally feel about wildfires and marijuana and the CU students. In fact, Brieta is the one who explained that I’m supposed to call them “CU students” in the first place—the university’s full name is the University of Colorado at Boulder, but no one calls it UCB. The locals only refer to it at “CU.” A Designated Local is an invaluable resource for making your setting feel right. And that’s a huge part of making your story feel real.

When you first begin planning your trip, ask your Designated Local (or the internet, if you don’t have a DL yet), where the actual local residents hang out. Most cities—especially a tourism-friendly town like Boulder—will have plenty of info online about attractions, popular destinations, natural wonders, and so on, but those are directed specifically at tourists, and you’re not exactly writing the city’s marketing brochure. Your Designated Local can help you figure out what places a real resident might visit. For example, Pearl Street is one of the major tourist attractions in Boulder—but it’s also a place that the average Boulder citizen spends time as well. That’s good intelligence to have.

If you don’t have a Designated Local going in, one of your main goals while you’re there should be to find one. That way you’ll have someone to email at two in the morning when you really need the name of that one fancy hotel you walked past on Pearl Street.

2. Make a scene wish list

If you’re not sure what you want to see, you can come at it from the other direction: give some thought to what your characters need to do. Maybe you know that you need a space where a bunch of characters can chat in private while examining stolen handguns, for instance, or a place where someone can dump a body or have a very public argument in front of a bunch of embarrassed tourists. If you go to your location with a whole list like that, you can wander around and check things off as you find them.

For example, as I was outlining Boundary Lines, I knew I would need a scene where several characters meet for the first time and develop a plan to stop the bad guy. In theory, a scene like that could be set anywhere—Starbucks, a parking lot, the protagonist’s living room. But I wanted to make the scene feel authentic to Boulder. I ended up choosing a little free coffee shop in the basement of the anthropology building called the BioLounge. There are a bunch of museum exhibits and a fun, funky atmosphere, which means lots of students and professors hang out there. As I was writing the scene, elements of the real-life BioLounge inspired me to add things on the spot. These details make the story feel more authentic, and they just wouldn’t be the same if everyone was talking at Starbucks.

3. Make some plans, but not too many plans

Once you have your list of places to visit, be sure to check operating hours and even call ahead to make sure the business will be open. You’ll especially want to schedule in-person interviews, bookstore visits (more on those later), and visits to specific locations that you definitely can’t do anywhere else. For example, I’ve written about werewolves for years, and when I discovered that there’s an actual wolf preserve two hours from Boulder, I really wanted to go observe their behavior. Not only did I use the behavior and activity I observed, but I actually ended up deciding to set several scenes at a fictional wolf preserve based on the real one.

Having those scheduled activities on your agenda will get you out and about in the city and make you feel like you’re accomplishing something. But do not, under any circumstances, fill every moment of every day with appointments. You need to leave some room for spontaneous, less sanitized research. I suggest scheduling one to three activities for each day, depending on how much you like running around. With the rest of your time, just wander around a little. Get lost a couple of times. Figure out where the locals go, and just hang out awhile. Take notes on the way people dress, talk, and smell. (Yes, smell.) And watch what they eat—food is one of the easiest ways to communicate setting through minor details. Every city has that one restaurant (sometimes even chain restaurant) where locals and tourists alike can eat in harmony.

While you’re there

4. Use your professional persona

In a past column for Litreactor, I wrote about how writers need to have public personas that are warm, professional, and charming, or at least close as you can manage. When you are on a research trip, you should always be “on,” because you never know when the barista, clerk, or assistant in front of you will turn out to be a big reader, a great source of information, or both.

For example, at the very end of a long day of research, I walked into the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for a caramel apple, because this is something I absolutely must do whenever I’m in Colorado. I was tired, my face hurt from smiling, my knees hurt from walking, and I was lugging around a small stack of my books. Oh, and I really, really needed to pee. Seeing the stack, the couple in front of me said something sort of friendly and innocuous along the lines of “you must be a big reader.”

This was a moment where I could have muttered something, grabbed my apple, and fled for the nearest bathroom, but I was “on.” So instead I smiled, explained that the books were all the same and I was actually the author, coming from a reader event. They asked what the books were about, and we had a nice chat, even pulling in the young clerk, who turned out to be a big reader. In the end, I gave both the girl and the couple signed books and bookmarks, and the couple bought my caramel apple and bottle of water. Then I fled for the bathroom.

5. Take pictures

It sounds obvious, but when you’re wrapped up in your book and in your location, trying to absorb ambiance and local dialect, it’s easy to forget to actually document the thing. But photos are invaluable for so many reasons. Not only will you be able to go back and refer to them later when you need to remember the layout of that one park, but you can use them for blogs and posts that promote your upcoming book. Plus, looking at multiple photos all at once can give you a good sense of overall place. I take hundreds of pictures on these trips, and I’ve even been known to print them out and put them in a book I can flip through when it comes time to write the sequel. We live in the age of easy, cheap digital photography. Take advantage.

6. Visit local bookstores

Have you ever read a book that was set in your city, or one you’ve visited, and gotten a little thrill from it? People like reading stories set in a place they know, which is why the bookstores in that area are your friend. When I was in Boulder I went to a popular bookstore, introduced myself, and handed out copies of my first Boulder book. Later, I thanked them by email and attached a form for how to order my books through the publisher. I was not pushy or demanding, but I was (hopefully) friendly, helpful, and interested in the store.

If you’ve got ARCs or other books out, you can even bring them copies to peruse. Just make sure you do your research beforehand: if the bookstore is only for specialty or used books, it may not be a great fit for your new release.

When you get home

7. Send thank-yous

All the people who took time out of their lives to answer your weirdo questions should at least get a followup email to say thank you (and a mention in the book’s Acknowledgment page). Your Designated Local should get a nice gift or at least a signed paperback. This is all just good manners, of course, but moreover, you may need to come back later, or you may at least have followup questions.

8. Transcribe your notes

I have a bad habit of taking copious notes during a trip and then putting them in a drawer for a few months until I’m plotting my next book. When I get the notebook back out, I have no idea what those fragments of my own handwriting refer to. “Student once killed in building?” “Ask curator for tips?” What are you talking about, past Melissa?

As soon as you have time—at the airport, the next day, that weekend—sit down with your notes and type everything up. Fill in as much detail as you can remember. Are the walls at the police department a very specific shade of teal? Did the sun make weird shadows after it bounced off the bank tower? Write it down. When you’re editing your book, go through those notes again (you’ll be able to understand them!) and see if there are any good places to insert that extra detail. Sometimes a few words about shadow is all you need to make a story feel real.

To see my full trip schedule and more photos, including a Hannibal Lector-like shot of Brieta's psychotic Chihuaha, check out my blog on the original trip here. I'd also love to hear your thoughts on researching locations in the comments below. Any tips I missed? Do you think authors should only write places they know well? 

About the author

Melissa Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa proved too broke for LA and moved to Madison, WI, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, a teaching gig, two kids, and two comically oversized dogs, not at all in that order.

She loves Madison, but still dreams of the food in LA. (Literally. There are dreams.) Along with her Scarlett Bernard novels Dead Spots, Trail of Dead, and Hunter’s Trail she has also released a mystery novel, The Big Keep. Melissa’s work has been published in the Daily Trojan, the Chippewa Falls Herald Telegram, The International Journal of Comic Art, The La Crosse Tribune, U-Wire, Women on, and the compilation Images of the Modern Vampire. She has also presented or been on panels at the Midwest Popular Culture/American Culture Conference, the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts Conference, OdysseyCon, and EncountersCon in Wichita.

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