Writing About a Place You’ve Never Been

I’m working on getting a novel ready for publication later this year, and part of it takes place in Greece. I have never been to Greece. I am extremely unlikely to get to Greece between now and when the book is due to my editor.

So, what’s a girl to do?

Luckily, we live in an age when there’s a ridiculous amount of information floating around, easily accessible to the masses.

Unlike a fictional place where you can design everything yourself, if you write a real place wrong, readers that are familiar with that place will feel subtly (or not-so-subtly) at odds with your setting. It may ruin the book for them. That is a Bad Thing. (I should note that fictional places located in real places like, say, a small town in the middle of Greece, still need to feel appropriate for the overall setting even if the town itself doesn’t exist.)

I know I’ve had books ruined for me because Colorado is portrayed incorrectly, and I’d hate to do that to someone else.

So! What tools can we use to learn about a place we’ve never been?

1) Travel Books and Videos
These are great, because someone else has gone to wherever and taken the time to tell you all about it. What to expect from the people, the hotels, the food, the sights. Driving conditions, what languages are spoken, a recent history of the location, you name it. Travel videos don’t contain the same level of information as the books, but they do show you what the place looks like. It’s one thing to know whether or not there’s a forest somewhere, but it’s quite another to be able to see the size of the trees, how much undergrowth there is, and whether or not it’s moist enough for moss and ferns to grow on everything.

(My own go-to for all things Europe-related is Rick Steves. My husband always teases me, but the man knows what he’s talking about, and his books have a nice conversational tone to them, making them easy to read.)

2) Google Maps
Or, I suppose, the map program of your choice. You can see the layout of cities, check distances between places (how many days would it take to get from A to B in a carriage?), and use street view (which, while it may give you a nice view of whatever building, I like because you can see the cars and the pedestrians, which bring the city to life a little more than some staged publicity photo).

3) Google Images
I can’t help it, Google is going to take over the world. Google Images is fantastic, because you put in what you’re looking for (for example, I did “Greek forest”) and then you get every image on the internet that’s tagged something similar. You can click on a picture to see it bigger, and go to the website the picture is on and possibly find useful information pertaining to the subject at hand. And it helps you visualize your setting in your head, making it easier and more believable to write. I tend to save my favorite images somewhere so I can use them for inspiration.

4) Other People’s Travel Experiences
There’s whole websites out there designed specifically for people to blog about their travels. Not everyone makes theirs public, but you can see what people did, what experiences they had, and look at pictures they took.

Anything else you’d recommend, Squiders? Any places you’re doing research on at the moment?

One response to this post.

  1. Maybe an autobiography or two of someone who grew up in or lived in Greece, though it depends on the level of detail you need. Also I know what you mean on certain things being ruined, but one author whose books I love – Robert Westall – based most of his books in Tynemouth and Newcastle, but he changed it to ‘Garmouth’ so that he could have a certain amount of fictional license with it, without people writing in to complain about discrepancies!


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