As a writer, I like to put my stories in places that will become sort of a third character. You don’t want stories that could take place in front of a white sheet that seems just as valid in Philadelphia, New York City, or Guam. WHERE you put your story is important. If you’re going to be specific, be really specific. Pick a place for a reason and write about it like you KNOW it. Especially if your characters are natives.
Now, as a human being who wasn’t born dripping rich, I’ve never been to most of the world. Say, 99.4%. I may be rounding down. But… I think I’ve successfully put stories in Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Arizona, Kansas, and Texas. Spoiler alert: I’ve only lived in two of those places.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in almost all of them, though. Did it help? Yes. In Chicago, I spent a wonderful afternoon in the Art Institute, gazing in awe at some of my favorite artists’ works. George Seurat’s magnificent A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, for instance. Arguably the greatest work of pointillism that exists. And so many more and wonderful works , Warhol, Lichtenstein, Matisse. I used both the Institute and those works in one of my novels, a little heist book called Pros. It gave the book flavor. I also reference the elevated rail system, and some of the buildings. When the characters move about, they use roads I specifically name. All of this gives the book a feel. I specifically picked Chicago for a reason, and I wanted to show that the book takes place there rather than any other city. I wanted the city itself to play a part.
My murder mystery series takes place in New York City, specifically the Bowery and surrounding streets. I’ve been on those streets. I’ve seen those concrete sidewalks. I’ve smelled the air. Do these things help? Yes. Necessary? Not really, especially since the books take place in the early 1980s. I was never in New York in the 80s. But I know enough about it to write realistically.
One of my books, What You Wish For, takes place in and around Philadelphia. I use the streets, schools, docks, and the vernacular and flavor of Philly to drive that home. I’ve never been to Philadelphia. But I think I did a good job. I studied maps. I studied pictures. I looked up actual places and people. I watched documentaries that took place there. I watch a lot of invaluable travel shows. I especially recommend anything with Anthony Bourdain. He gets to the meat of a place faster than anyone I’ve ever watched. I used some things I saw on one of his shows as background in my book.
I’m working on a book now about pirate ships and the Caribbean sea in 1790. Research is all I have (Except for being on an actual 19th century wooden ship in San Diego.) to help me. But there’s a metric ton of research out there to help with the terminology and the scenes. It’s a matter of studying maps, learning about the people, and digging into the heart of someplace or something you want to write about.
How do you convince people you know of what you write? Stephen King once apologized for describing Times Square Station in one of his books, because he accidentally made the ticket booths into bathrooms. They are not. You can brush it off with the old ‘creative license’ excuse. Perfectly valid. If reality lets you down, screw it and make up your own world. But if you want to convince people… research.
Before you do that, imagine describing your book set in your home town. Tell the reader all about the streets. The smells. Cows in the afternoon, maybe, or what the Dairy Queen smells like the day after they change out the grease in the fryer. How the wind always seems to howl on Halloween, but only then. How the fields out past route 17 are half alfalfa and half pumpkins. These kinds of details.
“Old Bob lived out past the half-moon building most of his life. He used to take the Gander Path home from school. Forty years later, he’s still walkin that path, and always manages to step square in the mud hole where the Jenson kid broke his leg that one time. Remember them dragging him to the ER? Covered in mud and goose feathers?”
Description like that sets a place immediately. Gives the read a feeling that you KNOW the Gander Path. You’ve SEEN the half-moon building. Maybe you know the mud hole. Not A mud hole. THE mud hole. The one everyone in town capitalizes in their head, because it’s the one that everyone falls into at some point. You need THAT kind of familiar detail to really sell a reader that you know what you’re talking about. You can make it up, but it’s better to KNOW.
Be sure to include all the senses. New Orleans is a non-stop party. There’s alcohol and music everywhere. Everyone knows this. The party people are almost all tourists. The locals usually have a bored expression on their faces. They avoid all the big places. Everyone knows - but did you know that New Orleans almost always smells like a wet dog? That when you walk down the streets of the French Quarter, there’s all kinds of garbage collected in the gutters, whether it rains or not? That it’s gonna smell alternately like wet dog, a sewer, or vomit after it DOES rain?
Do you know about the cobblestone paving in the Quarter on parts of Paper Street? Do you know how it feels to touch a lamp post? How you subconsciously rub your fingers on your jeans afterward, because everything always feels a little sticky due to humidity and thousands of hands?
These details can be acquired by reading books about New Orleans. Watching television shows set in New Orleans, travel shows about New Orleans, or even just studying pictures about the place. Oddly, one of the best books about New Orleans I’ve ever read was New Orleans By Night, a vampire supplement for the role-playing game. Lots of great details, lots of great maps.
Going to the places you write about is a good thing to do, but if you can’t you can always fudge it by doing as much research as you possibly can. I wrote an entire book about something I read once in a travel guide. Good stuff is to be found in both fiction and nonfiction. There’s no such thing as too much research. Ever.