How to research a story when you can’t travel
When writing a story set in another place, travel can be useful and inspiring. In a single location you can capture the specific details you need to make your story vivid.
But, what happens when you can’t travel? Can you still write a convincing story?
Recently, I had to cancel a research trip due to the pandemic. After a bit of grumbling, I sat down and had a look at my work in progress. Soon, I was ordering second-hand books and looking up library opening times, fizzing with ideas. My writing was back on.
I thought back to my first novel, and the resources that had helped me then. As the story crept along, each new bit of research added to the picture I was building. There were things I had to go back and change when new information emerged. I was fumbling along in the dark, working out how to write a book, step by tiny step, but I was making progress.
Honing my long-distance research skills has been a useful discipline. I’ve discovered nine types of resources that are the next best thing to travelling somewhere in person.
Nine remote research resources
- Novels. However tangentially connected to the setting of your book, other novels could inspire you. Look for books by modern authors from the place you’re writing about as well as older novels by renowned authors. Take notes on how the authors have brought the places to life and see if they spark original ideas. Not sure where to start? Take a look at Condé Nast Traveler’s list of the 87 Greatest Travel Books of All Time.
- Travel writing. Read around and beyond the country you’re focusing on. Read books by ancient and modern travellers, and books about other places written at the time your book is set. There are also many great magazines, including Backpacker, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic, Nowhere, travel websites and blogs.
- Memoirs can provide great personal insights. Agatha Christie may be best known for other work, but her memoirs about archaeological digs in Syria and Iraq from the 1920s to the 1960s have been a key resource for my latest project.
- Archives. The British Library, Imperial War Museum, and the National Archives have huge stores of documents, and membership is free. The quantity can be overwhelming but it’s a brilliant opportunity to read first-hand accounts. Sebastian Faulks’s novel, Birdsong, gets its impact from the specific details Faulks uncovered through archive research.
- Internet searches shouldn’t be underestimated. There are lots of useful places to check facts about a location, for example the Britannica and World Atlas, as well as articles, stories and personal accounts that provide useful insights.
- Image searches. Sourcing images can help immerse you in a place as well as give inspiration for characters’ appearances, behaviours and cultures. You could make up a Pinterest board or print them out and pin images around your desk for inspiration.
- Google Maps. This can be useful for plotting routes for characters and checking place names. It’s also helpful for working out distances, travel times, and so on.
- Personal recollections. If you’re lucky enough to know someone with experience in the area you’re writing about, talk to them! Contact people who live there. Talk to friends from abroad, or those with family links. I spent years asking my grandmother about her experiences as a British nurse in India during the Second World War which all came back when I started writing.
- Family records. After my grandmother died, we found a chest full of documents from her long life. Look for letters, photographs, birth certificates, school reports, army records, diaries, postcards, manuscripts, recipes, sewing patterns, shopping lists – anything and everything might be useful one day.
Use everything you can to immerse yourself in the places and times of your stories.
With great research, you can transport yourself and your readers without ever leaving home.