How to Research a Location You Haven’t Actually Been To


by Helena Fairfax

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, or read any of my books, you’ll know how important setting is to me in my writing. In this post about Richmond Park, for example, I wrote about how I tried to combine the setting for The Antique Love with the theme of the book, and how I used the setting to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of my characters.

So far I’ve been able to visit most of the locations I’ve used in my books. My settings range from Edinburgh to the south coast of France, and they are all within easy reach for me. But sometimes it’s just not possible to get to the place you want to write about. I used to agonise about this. I like to “see” exactly what it is my characters see.

But I’ve gradually stepped out of my comfort zone and written about places I haven’t been to myself. I wrote about a parachute jump in A Way from Heart to Heart, for example. I’m terrified of heights, and there is absolutely no way you’d get me to jump out of a plane, but I wrote a realistic (I hope) scene in which the hero is with his instructor, steps out of a plane door, how he feels as he does so, and how he lands. (He’s in a state of terror pretty much the whole time – he shares my fear of heights, and I could easily write his feelings!)

In 2007 Stef Penney won the Costa Prize for The Tenderness of Wolves. She did all her research in the British Library, and yet the book is set in a bleak landscape in northern Canada, and this landscape is an integral part of the story. The author is agoraphobic and couldn’t get on a plane, and yet she wrote vivid, prize-winning descriptions. If you are able to research and you have a vivid imagination (both attributes of a writer) it’s possible to bring an unknown location alive for readers.

My next novel (coming out in July 2017) is called Felicity at the Cross Hotel. The setting is the Lake District, at a fictional lake called Emmswater, which is based on Ullswater. Ullswater is about three hours’ drive from me. I’ve been several times, but there were still occasions when I need to refresh my memory or check certain details. Here are some places I use for research:

1. Instagram  A search on the hashtag #ullswater throws up literally thousands of photos.

2.  Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest are also great places to find photos. Flickr and Tumblr host travel blogs, as well as images. A search on the Lake District on Tumblr brought up this website of stunning photos. (I have my own profile on Pinterest, where I pin photos and articles on writing. Here’s my board for my book The Silk Romance, which has lots of photos of the setting in Lyon’s beautiful Croix-Rousse district.)

3. Buy maps and travel guides for the area you’re researching.

4. If there is a tourist information office in the location you’re writing about, get in touch with them. I’ve found the staff in these official offices are always very helpful. After all, their aim is to attract visitors to their area, and they are always interested and delighted to know that someone is writing a book set in their location.

5. YouTube was invaluable to me when researching my hero’s parachute jump. Everyone videos themselves nowadays, and YouTube is a fantastic source of real life footage – from a bungee jump in New Zealand, or a trip round Niagara Falls, or a wildlife hunt in East Africa.

6. Put a call out on social media and see if you can find someone who has been to that area. Most people are more than happy to share their experiences.

7. One of my favourite resources is Google Earth. Using this application you can travel all around the world from the comfort of your own armchair, zoom in and out, look at other people’s photos, and immerse yourself in the location.

8. I find Google maps Street View is even better than Google Earth. If you want to take your characters on a journey, you can put yourself at street level on the exact same roads they’d have to travel down. In Felicity at the Cross Hotel, my hero and heroine take a trip to the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Whitehaven. I used Google maps to go on that journey with them, and I was able to visualise exactly their walk along this harbour wall. It’s an amazing resource!

9. Read lots of other novels set in the same location. The website Trip Fiction is a great place to find books set all over the world. Just type in the location you’re after, and a whole list of suggested reading will come up.

When I’m reading a book set in a place I’ve been to, I love to recognise the landmarks as the story progresses, and to know I’ve stood on the same streets. I try to make my own settings as accurate as possible, so readers can do the same. Plus, the research is fun and I learn a lot from it!




Guest post contributed by Helena Fairfax. Helena writes engaging contemporary romances with sympathetic heroines and heroes she’s secretly in love with. Her novels have been shortlisted for several awards, including the Exeter Novel Prize, the Global Ebook Awards, and the I Heart Indie Awards. Her first novel was written through the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.

46 thoughts on “How to Research a Location You Haven’t Actually Been To

  1. Nothing actually compares to going there. I have what my other half calls a “mapping brain”. I like to examine maps and understand the lay of the land for both urban and rural locations. I love maps, GIS systems and landscapes, something that partly inspired my MA in landscape archaeology. That said, I tend not to write about places I don’t know. Either that or I invent a location within a landscape I do know. That’s a great compromise, I find.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the idea of inventing a location within a landscape, MG Mason. I did something similar with Emmswater – my fictional lake in the Lake District. If I’d chosen to write about a real lake there was always the possibility of getting some tiny detail wrong. This would spoil it for readers who knew the area well, and throw them out of the story.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!


      1. No problem! Like you, I too invented a place in my current WIP. This one is on the south Cornish coast, but I was careful to ensure I gave it a clear sense of place in Cornwall (explaining the terrain), and described precisely which settlements were nearby (its distance from Penzance and Land’s End). I feel it helps ground both the readers and the writer.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. These are all really great tips! It’s a shame we can’t always go to the places we write about (Some of my stories take place in Faerie). Still it’s always important to get as much of a feel for a location as you can.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reading your article provided me with validation of a few of the strategies that I incorporate in my own writing experience, in particular, with my second book. If you cannot get to actually experience a location by visiting it, then the suggestions you’ve outlined is the next best thing. Thanks for sharing your process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Michael Seidel, writer and commented:
    I enjoy blogs like this, that suggest ideas for how to do things, and stimulate your thinking about how to accomplish things like researching locations.

    I’m a fan of Google Earth, myself, but I’ve found that Instagram and other social media sites are excellent resources. One of my most successful approaches is to Google a location and look at the images. After finding some that intrigue me, I search back to the source. There’s often a blog post or article attached with more details and explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michael, thanks so much for sharing the post. I like your idea of clicking through to an article from a photo of a location. You could learn a lot from it – and also possibly find inspiration for your own writing. Thank you so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very sound advice. I’m currently working on a novel in which the characters travel to many places I’ve never seen. It’s been a challenge to capture the atmosphere of each location without having been there. The official web sites for museums the characters visit has helped. But your tips will definitely come in handy. Thanks for the great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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