One of the things a book reviewer invariably comments on is verisimilitude of a book’s setting, the vividness of the details, the authenticity of the regional voice. And how to you get that authenticity? If you are writing about someplace other than our own home town, travel is an important part about getting the research right. One of the first writers I ever met and one who went on to become a mentor and friend, Susan Fletcher, went all the way to Iran to research her books Shadow Spinner and Alphabet of Dreams. She wanted to know what color the dirt was, the texture of the sand in the desert, and the smell of the souk. The result is a pair of books that were critically praised in America but also widely respected in their Persian editions in Iran.
I have since traveled to research my own books, both in the US and occasionally abroad. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.
- Take a first aid kit and comfortable shoes. Always. You will be walking far more than you planned, and it’s just the worst when you have finally found the vista you needed most and be distracted by blisters or bee stings with no medical help in sight.
- Leave the computer behind. I get so wrapped up in my screen, it can b
e a real detriment to engaging in the place I’m visiting. Most phones come with a camera, a note taking function and voice recording function. That’s all I need. I try to resist the urge to check email and social media. The kind of discovery that makes the details of my story feel authentic is not going to come from a screen.
- Be socially brave. Ask people questions. Engage. Most people like
- to talk about their home town and home culture. A month of reading in a library will not give the kind of insights that make something feel true. For example when I asked a family in a rural Oregon county what difference the reintroduction of wolves have made to their life, they said, “Now we send our kids to the bus stop with a gun.” That’s the sort of vivid detail that doesn’t come up in books and newspapers.
- Bring small gifts from home. I usually bring a stack of postcards from Oregon when I travel and give them as a thank you to a person I’ve had a conversation with on a train or at a pub. If I’ve made an appointment to see somebody–say a curator at a museum–I might bring something quintessentially Oregon like marionberry jam or chocolate truffles with douglas fir tips, or some small token of appreciation.
- Do not collect things unless it is specifically permitted. In many places even collecting a rock or shell from the ground is forbidden. In some public gardens it is against the law to remove any vegetation, even fallen leaves or flowers. Sometimes the fine is shockingly high.Take a photo. Trace the outline of a leaf, catch a sound clip of a waterfall,
- Track expenses. Many are tax deductible. Your flight or milage, admissions to museums, and exhibitions, your lodging, meetings that are specifically related to your writing count. The gifts you bought for your family, the play you took in just for fun, and the expenses of your traveling companions, not so much.
- Be open to discovery. The real benefit of going to a location is to find new perspectives and information that doesn’t get into the usual channels.
- Be culturally aware. sometimes the official line on a cultural or historical event is a dot off the full picture. Or, okay, an entire mile. The traditional thanksgiving story is a prime example. Take in more than one perspective. Be willing to change your story if your version in not fair in its representation. Or be clear in your bias from the outset.
- Take contact information from key sources for follow up. You may be making revisions on the final version of this story 10 or 12 years after your initial research.
- Go beyond the guide book. Get off the beaten path. Linger. Arrive at an off peak time. Ask local folks where to go. The joy of travel is the unexpected and your book will be the stronger for it.