February 25 – March 3: “How do you research a location beyond your reach?”

This week ITW Members Jennifer Moss, Susan Froetschel, Ralph PezzulloTosca Lee and J.C. Carleson discuss researching locations that are beyond their reach, say for distance or no longer in existence?


Ralph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning journalist and playwright, and screenwriter. His books include Jawbreaker, Inside SEAL Team Six, The Walk-In, At the Fall of Somoza, Plunging Into Haiti (winner of the 2006 Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, Most Evil, The Navy SEAL Survival Handbook, the SEAL Team Six thriller Hunt the Wolf, and the upcoming Hunt the Scorpion and (with Don Mann).

Jennifer Moss was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois and is a graduate of Northwestern University. Although she received her degree in music theory/composition, Jennifer had an affinity for computers and entered the technology field upon graduation. In 1996, when the internet was at its infancy, Moss launched one of the first parenting websites, BabyNames.com. She also served as Director of Development and consulted with several Los Angeles internet companies. Jennifer began her writing career as a freelance author for articles about the internet industry in 2000. Her first book, THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BABY NAME BOOK was published in 2008 by Perigee Press (a division of Penguin) as a companion to her website.

Tosca Lee is the NY Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed DEMON: A MEMOIR, HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE, ISCARIOT and the Books of Mortals series with NY Times bestseller Ted Dekker: FORBIDDEN, MORTAL and SOVEREIGN (Spring, 2013). Tosca received her B.A. in English and International Relations from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She also studied at Oxford University. In her spare time, Tosca enjoys adventure travel and makes her home in the midwest.

Susan Froetschel is the author of four mystery novels, including Fear of Beauty, published by Seventh Street Books in January. The book, set in rural Afghanistan, is about a woman desperate to learn how to read after the death of her oldest son. Fear of Beauty is a story of bitter opponents who find common interests. Since 2005 Froetschel has worked for YaleGlobal Online, a publication that covers globalization, defined as the interconnectedness of our world.

J.C. Carleson is a former undercover CIA officer. She spent nine years conducting clandestine operations around the globe before trading the real world of espionage for writing about espionage. She is the author of WORK LIKE A SPY: BUSINESS TIPS FROM A FORMER CIA OFFICER, and CLOAKS AND VEILS.

  1. The setting for my fourth book is Afghanistan. I did not travel there. Chance often plays a role in why we care about another place.

    I have met several people who lived in Afghanistan before 1979, before the war with the Soviet Union and before the Taliban took power: A good friend of my husband’s had traveled around the country before the war with Russia. One Christmas we had to find a restaurant in Washington DC, and one of the few open was an Afghanistan restaurant that also happened to be hosting a joyful wedding. A good friend from Bangladesh has introduced me to cuisine of South Asia. Another good friend worked at the Hartford Public Library, where I witnessed the dedication of Afghan refugees attending a free language class.

    Before the destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyam Valley, before the 9/11 attacks, I had associated Afghanistan with hospitality.

    In March 2009, reactions were fierce to an Obama administration proposal that negotiations with the Taliban might be necessary for ending the war in Afghanistan, and a plot came to mind. I was uncertain that I could write such a book, but visited a university library to browse through old photograph books on Afghanistan from the 1920s and 1930s. The photos confirmed that my imagined village was a possibility. Once writing, I realized the plot required more than frenzied research. I had to do without, stripping my writing of modern language, conveniences and comforts that we take for granted in this country. Later, a refugee also answered questions and read portions of the manuscript.

  2. I’ve had the good fortune of traveling all over the globe, including quite a few places well off the typical tourist path. This means that, so far, I’ve been able to stick to the list of places I’ve actually been in my writing. But even so, sometimes the particular buildings, streets, restaurants, etc. that I encountered in person aren’t suitable for my character, so I can’t rely exclusively on memories.

    I have found YouTube invaluable for helping me develop a particular sense of place. For example, I recently needed to describe a Syrian neighborhood. Things have changed quite a lot since I was last in Damascus, so I clicked around YouTube until I found the perfect video — someone had turned his camera on and cruised around the streets of the city on the back of a motorcycle for a good 45 minutes. There was no commentary — just raw footage. It was exactly what I needed to give me a sense of daily life, different neighborhoods, damage to buildings, and foot traffic. This unedited glimpse into a city gave me more insight (as far as descriptive writing is concerned) than any news article ever could have.

  3. My latest thriller (which I wrote with SEAL Team 6 assault leader and trainer Don Mann) is set mainly in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi. I’ve never visited Libya (and neither has Don), but I have traveled to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. I’ve also been in countries that have recently experienced a revolution or change in regime (like Nicaragua and Iraq). And I have a sense of the displacement, fear, and hope the local people feel in those situations, and what it’s like to have different political groups vying for power. So I always start with what I know.

    Next, I interviewed people who had recently traveled to Libya. Then I did a lot of research about the local food, music, history, customs, dress, literature, social structure, and so on. I also looked at all the photos I could find on the internet. Armed with all that research, I tried to imagine what it was like to be in Tripoli and walk the streets. Hopefully, readers will feel like they’re there.

  4. One of the genres I write in is historical fiction. I find it very helpful to visit the places that I write about, even thousands of years after the fact–vestiges of the people, culture, even the food remain today. But it wasn’t possible for me to travel to the Zagros mountain range for my second novel, Havah, where I set the legendary garden of eden, and it will not be possible for my current work on Sheba’s queen to travel to Yemen. I rely heavily on books and accounts of others who travel there, paying particular attention to the customs, the foods, and the descriptions–especially other traveler’s impressions of an area, the landscape, the people, and their mannerisms. I regularly enlist the help of others who have been to the area. Another great source: the fictional work of others. The sources they cite in their author’s notes and acknowledgements have been of great help to me in building my research library.

    Beyond that, I rely heavily on travel DVDs, documentaries, YouTube. I comb the internet for travel sites, images. I go to National Geographic, The Learning Channel, The Travel Channel, The History Channel. I’ve been shameless about soliciting the help of academics who lecture on topics tied to the region of my setting.

    Because food is so important to any location, I at times consult regional cookbooks as well. For some reason, it always seems that you can learn much about another culture from the food!

  5. If I really want to know what a location feels like, I will visit it (business expense)! But if that’s not a possibility, I will use Google Street View or Google Earth for the visuals. Then I will do search on TripIt or YELP to see what people say about the location (if it’s a business or venue or tourist attraction).

    When in doubt, you can always make up street names or locations and do the research inside your head.


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