By Colleen M. Story
Should you travel to research your novel?
It may be a question you’re facing right now.
The answer isn’t easy. Traveling takes time and money, after all. And with Google Maps and other online resources, it’s possible to get most of the information you need for your story without leaving your couch.
Can you justify the cost of a trip? Or would it be self-indulgence?
Years ago, I decided in favor of indulgence, and I'm so happy I did. The story I researched (The Beached Ones) is now coming out with CamCat books in June 2022.
Might I have succeeded in telling the story without taking the trip? Maybe. But here are four reasons why if you’re considering it, I would encourage you to hop in the car (or plane) and go at your earliest opportunity.
The Diamond Horseshoe Café in Cheyenne, Wyoming. My characters stop here for breakfast but then tragedy strikes!
1. Traveling Helps You Improve Your Setting Descriptions
This is the first benefit I noticed while on my trip.
It’s one thing to see a location on a computer screen. It’s another to see it with your own eyes, to smell the air, feel the breeze on your skin, and sense the quality of the soil under your feet.
When traveling, you’ll also be able to absorb the culture of the people who live in that location. You’ll get a better sense of their daily lives, what they care about, how they dress and talk, and how they may interact with your characters.
I noticed when I was on the road that although the locations looked similar to how I’d imagined them while doing my research for the novel, that sense of how a place may affect a person while in it was quite different in many cases.
The key is to take profuse notes and lots of pictures, as you’ll need these to refer to when you get back home. Don’t be surprised if you also find yourself adding new scenes in new settings—or subtracting some. Sometimes you see something so inspiring that you have to find a way to get it into your book. Other times, the settings you had will no longer seem to fit.
The Salt Lake City Library: My characters go to an author presentation here. The architecture is amazing.
2. Traveling May Improve Your Story’s Logistics
Another major benefit of traveling to research my novel was experiencing the reality of getting from one place to the other.
Writers usually don’t include the boring details of traveling from here to there, but knowing how it feels to cover those miles can help you better portray the moods of your characters when they arrive at their stopping places along the way.
It can also help you avoid making some critical mistakes!
On the first day of my trip researching The Beached Ones, for example, I spotted a plane sitting out in a field by itself. I was excited because I had found this plane in my research and included it in my story.
Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nevada: My characters win a lot of money here!
On the Internet, though, I had seen only a picture and a town—no additional information. So I had imagined its location. When I realized where the plane was really located, in reference to the town, I knew it was going to throw a wrench in my scene.
It was a big wrench. My options:
1) change the scene so my main character sees the plane where it is and risk losing some of the dramatic effect,
2) leave the scene as is (and brace myself to hear from readers about the mistake),
3) take the plane out of the scene entirely.
Warning: Traveling to research your novel may throw some frustrating wrenches in your draft. Be prepared, but be grateful. I believe my story ended up better because of what I discovered about that plane.
Bay Area Discovery Museum: Daniel searches for his younger brother here.
3. Traveling May Inspire Some Amazing Experiences that Benefit Your Story
On the last day of my trip, as the sun was about to set, I wanted to see one location once more in the evening light.
Little did I know how important the timing would be. I mean, freaky coincidental timing.
Returning to that critical location, I stopped to get some pictures, and just happened to run into a security officer. He was patrolling, as was usual in this location. I asked him some questions, needing to clarify a few things.
I soon realized that the muse had just introduced me to a very special person. I ended up talking to him for a good twenty minutes or more, and during that short spell, got nothing short of gold for my story. Pure gold.
This man had experienced exactly what happens in my climactic scene. He told me details I never could have imagined. I listened as he conveyed case after case, what had gone down in each, and his role in it.
It was surreal, as I hadn’t planned this meeting. But it was as if the universe had planned it for me so I could write the best ending to the story.
Warning: Traveling to research your novel may freak you out, especially when amazing people just happen to cross your path and dump story gold into your lap.
Golden Gate Bridge: A special location in “The Beached Ones.”
4. Traveling May Help Motivate You to Write to the Best of Your Ability
My experience talking to that officer motivated me to do what I needed to do to make my story as good as it could be.
That day I learned that what happens between my (at the time) private pages happens to real people every day.
Of course, I knew that on some level, but the officer helped me to feel that more truly in my heart. My characters are fictional, but they represent real people. The story is made up, but it is symbolic of real lives.
Sailboat: A small sailboat just like this figures large at the end of “The Beached Ones.”
“Well that’s what writers do!” you may say. We all know this. But it’s different to look into someone’s eyes and feel it. To stand opposite someone and realize that you don’t want them to read your book at some point in the future and feel that you got it wrong—that you let them down.
We all struggle with self-doubt. We don't know if our stories mean anything or not. This whole journey, particularly the final step, showed me that the story I was striving to tell was more meaningful than I imagined, particularly to the people who go through similar dramas every day.
After meeting some of those people, I was a bit terrified—worried whether I was up to the task.
Only you can answer that question. (Order the book here.)
The point is that traveling to research your novel may have you shaking in your boots at the prospect of returning to the manuscript.
But that fear, in turn, will likely serve to make the writing better.
Pacific City, CA: One of the last locations I visited on the trip.
Have you found benefits to traveling to research your novel?
Note: The Beached Ones is forthcoming from CamCat books in June 2022. Get your FREE excerpt here, or preorder now! (Buy links and book trailer here.) Get FREE chapters of Colleen’s books for writers here.
Colleen M. Story is a novelist, freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker with over 20 years in the creative writing industry. Her latest release, The Beached Ones, is forthcoming from CamCat Books in June 2022. Her novel, Loreena’s Gift, was a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others.
Colleen has written three books to help writers succeed. Your Writing Matters is the most recent, and was a bronze medal winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards (2022). Other award-winning titles include Writer Get Noticed! and Overwhelmed Writer Rescue. Enjoy free chapters of these books here.