February 10 – 16: “Is travel essential to portray a setting? Is research ever enough?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we join ITW Members Jean Harrington, Dan Mayland, Stephen Carbone, Lisa Von Biela, Patrick Lee, Jennie Mortimer, Chris Knopf, Marc Cameron, Don Helin and John Howard Swain while they discuss travel vs. research: “Is travel essential to portray a setting? Is research ever enough?”


Time Of Attack by Marc CameronUSA Today bestselling author, Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He’s published ten novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry). TIME OF ATTACK, fourth in his Jericho Quinn Thriller series, is new from Kensington, February of 2014. Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.

THE JANUS LEGACY coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. Her debut novel, THE GENESIS CODE, was released in 2013. Her second novel, THE JANUS LEGACY, is due out in February 2014, and her first novella, ASH AND BONE, is set for release in May 2014.

devilsdenDuring Don Helin‘s time in the military, he spent seven years in the Pentagon. These assignments have provided him background for his thrillers. His first novel, THY KINGDOM COME was published in 2009. His second, DEVIL’S DEN has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don lives in central Pennsylvania where he is working on “Secret Assault,” to be published in Spring 2014.

spyforhireAuthor of the bestselling Mark Sava spy-thriller series, Dan Mayland is an international traveler who brings his adventures to life on the page. He lives in Pennsylvania with his family.

Stephen Carbone is new to the novel writing world. His literary experience comes from penning regular articles for several aviation journals, a sort of open-door series. His thirty plus years in aviation were on both sides of the table – airline and government. Stephen has investigated major airline accidents; this first book, an aviation techno-thriller, closely parallels his first hand experiences with such disasters. Stephen and his wife of thirty-one years live in Virginia.

cries-of-the-lost-web (2)Chris Knopf’s eleventh book, Cries of the Lost, was named one of the Five Best Mysteries of 2013.  It was the sequel to Dead Anyway (2012), the 2013 winner of the Nero Award.  Dead Anyway also  received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus and Library Journal. Publishers Weekly listed it as one of the Top Twelve Mysteries of 2012, the Boston Globe a Ten Best Crime Books of 2012.  Knopf also writes the Sam Acquillo and Jackie Swaitkowski Hamptons Mystery series.

RTDF_cover_imageSJean Harrington is the author of the Naples-set Murders by Design Mystery Series featuring an interior designer as amateur sleuth with a tough-talking, kick-ass detective as her soft-at-heart love interest. A former English prof, Jean now writes for the exploding field of electronic publishing and is awed by its impact on readers and writers alike. Her books are also available in paperback through Harlequin’s Worldwide Mystery Library.

John Swain - Cover The Science & Art of Film ActingJohn Howard Swain (Actor, Director, Producer) John has directed, produced or starredin over thirty plays, has appeared as a guest-star in dozens of television shows ranging from Hill Street Blues to Law and Order SVU and is the director of the multi-award winning filmA Younger Man. Currently working on a crime novel, Central Station, his book The Science & Art of Film Actingis used by actors throughout the world.

Trilemma by Jennifer MortimerAfter a mixed education in literature, science and commerce, Jennifer Mortimer has worked as an IT executive in many countries and industries. She is currently the R&D project manager at Weta Digital, the people behind the special effects for AVATAR, LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE HOBBIT. Jennifer and her husband Paul split their time between a colonial villa in Wellington, New Zealand, and a Cathar castle in the south of France. TRILEMMA is her debut novel.

Runner by Patrick LeePatrick Lee lives in Michigan. In addition to Runner, he is the author of the Travis Chase trilogy.

  1. I believe it is according to the story you’re writing. If, for instance, you are writing about New York City and you have never been there, you’d lose your audience while describing the waving fields of grain in Times Square. I’m being facetious, of course, but the point being that readers like myself, are picky about what they read. The setting is important. If one needs to travel to specific locations in the setting, such as a beach in San Juan, then it would benefit the writer to be as familiar with the setting as is possible. However Arthur C. Clarke would have had a hard time becoming familiar with the moon, Iapetus (Japetus) orbiting Saturn back in the 60s, so sometimes research (and a bit of imagination) have to suffice.

    1. I believe a sense of place is an important element in a story. And for a reader to fully engage in what you’ve created, you need to provide a compelling visual/audio/sensual experience of a place, which is far more compelling when reproduced from a real memory than from research. I also find that it is the small details that capture the essence of a place. I guess you can imagine those, but an authentic detail tends to ring more true. Besides, I hate research. It reminds me too much of real work.
      My stories are set in visually interesting places, mostly outside of the US; Wellington, Hawkes Bay, Waiheke Island, Carcassonne, Guernsey, Macau, Hawaii. I’m not happy with the Macau chapters because I haven’t yet been there, so I am organizing a trip so I can smell the air, hear the sounds, see the strangeness and beauty of the place and try to reproduce those impressions for my readers.
      It makes a brilliant excuse for traveling! And yes Mr Taxman, those are tax-deductible expenses!

  2. I’m delighted to be part of this panel as I believe credible setting is critical to quality story telling.
    Jennifer hits it when she says you need a sense of place. Telling details help anchor your reader in the story. If you use specific details, then the fictional piece will feel right.
    For example, my latest thriller, Devil’s Den, opens in Gettysburg and moves to Ireland. I live near Gettysburg and travelled to Ireland several years ago.
    I do have one advantage as I spent the early part of my wrting career as a travel writer so I knew to take good notes in Ireland. I tell readers that my character follows the same trek I did, but the difference is that people are shooting at him and all I was did was down a pint or two. So I can describe that pub and bring it alive for the reader, the music, the feel of the table, the people. the smells. It’s all part of the scene.
    Credible research is important to me. It’s the same thing as that telling detail. I used to work in the Pentagon. This helps me set the scene so the reader can feel where he is, then I can add my research into weapons, vehicles, anything else I need to use.
    As Stephen said, if you put a bunch of waving fields of grain in Times Square, your reader isn’t likely to go along with any of your story and probably will set it down.
    While character and plot are key to a great story, the setting anchors the reader and makes them feel part of the story. For me, having been there helps me better set the scene, and yes it is tax deductible. Besides, it’s fun to have been there, done that.

  3. Is travel essential to portray a setting. Is research ever enough?

    No, you don’t have to visit a location to write about it effectively. You can pull up a virtual tour in any city on earth and see its main streets, its monuments, its famous and/or trendy restaurants, public parks, department store and tucked away boutiques and shops.

    So why go to the expense and trouble of hands-on experience when creating a setting for your writing? The decision depends, of course, on your story. If everything takes place in a summer camp in the woods, and you’ve gone camping in the past, no need to repeat the experience. Especially if you’re a person who doesn’t even sleep with the window open.

    But if you’re resurrecting a specific location with recognizable places of interest, you’d better have the details correct. Research may not be enough; a trip might be in order, or the alternative: write about a place you know. Then your reader is less likely to throw your book across the room because that bistro you mention closed ten years ago.

    Also having intimate knowledge of a location, makes a writer’s job easier. You don’t have to create a setting by imaging what it might be like, and you don’t accidentally fall into errors of place. You know, and the knowing invests your prose with a confidence the reader senses.

    Of course, there’s always science fiction. In sci-fi, a writer can create her own world and avoid setting errors completely. Who’s to say there are no street lights on a certain planet, and no boutique in the basement of that moon rock, and that the head robot last year wasn’t. . . ? But when stories are set here on earth, some verisimilitude is essential.

    So in Rooms To Die For, #4 in my Murders by Design Series, I was pleased when a reader said she could feel the humid, tropical atmosphere of Southwest Florida. Having lived through many steamy summers here in Naples, I had those vivid experiences to help me in creating the book’s atmosphere. So maybe I’ll tear up that outline for a murder mystery set in Antarctica and switch the locale to my hot, humid and wonderful home town. But then again—maybe not.

  4. I think it depends on the setting in question. New York City is a great example. I’ve only been there briefly a couple of times (once on business where I never left the hotel!), and so know I could not write it credibly. A place like that, you’d be crazy to write about without some first-hand familiarity.

    That said, I often find myself setting a piece in a fictional locale that is a sort of amalgam of places that I have experienced. I can inject the local feel I want to and can make up the street names and other features as needed. It actually gives me more latitude than trying to be accurate as to a well known place.

    We’ve roadtripped through a lot of the US on photographic expeditions. This gives me the ability to take that local bar from Place A, that terrain from Place B, that weather from Place C, and so forth, to come up with my own locations that have the features *I* want. Control freak, me??? 🙂

  5. I’m with Jean on this! No, travel absolutely isn’t essential to portray a setting, and I say that as someone who writes spy thrillers set in Central Asia and the Caspian region, and travels frequently to those regions in order to portray them accurately.

    Can travel be helpful? Sure, depending on the story. But plenty of fine novels have been written based on research alone.

    The recent bestseller A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is one example. It’s set in Chechnya, but evidently Marra wrote it while living in Iowa. (I read he did visit Chechnya, but after the book was written.)

    Also, worth noting: while I agree wholeheartedly with Don that telling detail is important, it’s also true that larding up a book with too many damn details–gleaned from travel, research or wherever–is great way to kill a good story.

    1. I do agree that while travel isn’t essential to portraying a setting, it does help to be steeped in the atmosphere of a certain place. Research can’t give you that special light, the odor of fish from the wharf, the taste of the local bistro specialties. I guess that’s where imagination steps in to enhance research–if it’s not possible to visit the site in person.

  6. Do you have to travel? Of course not. You can find gold at a local store. But, if you travel to the mine, you’re much more likely to find a bunch of other shiny stuff you weren’t expecting at all.

    Street View on Google can make sure you aren’t putting fields of grain in Chinatown–and even let you imagine the smell of fish markets on a humid summer day. What it will not get you are those little details like the rumble of a subway going underneath the pavement or the Chinese women standing along the sidewalk, singing their whispered chant of ‘handbag-handbag-dvd-dvd-handbag-handbag…” Anyone who has been to the crowded streets is taken back by those kind of details, and those that haven’t get a taste of something that helps them imagine the difference of the place.

    I had the opportunity to tour a “Love Hotel” near Tokyo while researching my latest book. There is quite a bit of information about these places on the internet, but through interviews with the owner, her son and the old woman who ran the place, I was found out all sorts of details was handy for my character to know when he’s on the run in Japan. Ninety percent of it made it directly into the book.
    My best detail, though, came after the tour, when my translator, Yukiko, told me a story when she and I were walking down the narrow, maze-like streets on the way back to our train.She worked with me for the better part of thee weeks but I don’t think she would have told me the story in another setting. I certainly would not have found it through online or book research.
    It only provides for a couple of paragraphs in the book, but was one of those little gems that I stumbled over after the research was ‘over’.


    Is travel essential to portray a setting?
    I had the great privilege and opportunity to do a lot of traveling in my life starting at a very young age. My father was in the Foreign Service. I left the States when I was six and returned to go to college at eighteen. After a less than spectacular freshman year I was drafted. Along with a tour of duty in Vietnam I also got to see several other Asian countries. Has all of this travel helped when it comes to portraying settings/locations in my writing? Yes, absolutely.
    We live in a time when we can see almost any place in the world without leaving our homes. But seeing something isn’t the same thing as experiencing it. Photographs, movies, videos are all wonderful but they pale in comparison to actually being there. Sitting in front of our computers is not the same as living, smelling, touching the real thing. You can see a thousand pictures of the jungle but if you don’t go there you’ll never know what the heat and humidity feels like when it envelops you. You’ll never know that sweet and pungent smell of decay that permeates the rain forest. Or how it feels when you step on a root and how relieved you were it wasn’t a snake.
    Can you portray a setting without actually going there? Sure, aspects of it. But if you’re able, pack a bag and go because nothing, nothing beats the real thing.

    Is research ever enough?
    In my day job (acting, directing, producing) research is a vital part of the process. Film moves through a projector at twenty-four frames a second and if something is amiss even for a single frame it can pull the viewer out of the experience and ruin the illusion the creative team is striving to produce. If you’re working on a fact-based story the historical and cultural aspects of the piece need to ring true otherwise the audience (reader) is pulled out of the story.
    However, if the piece is fiction research is still a vital part of the process. Just because a story is made-up doesn’t relieve of its obligation to be authentic. The creative team—the writers, actors and directors—must hold themselves to the same high standard a biographer does when it comes to researching a project. The look and feel of The Game of Thrones must, to the viewer (and reader), seem real. Those places don’t really exist but because of the extensive research (and imagination) done by George R. R. Martin and later by all the people who helped produce the TV series, they do. Same with the characters – John Snow has to be real if you’re going to root for him. Jaime Lannister has to be real if you’re going to root against him. Sansa Stark has to be real if you’re going to hope for her. The research into these fictional characters is what makes them real and what allows us to engage with them.
    Research is important because it is the application of that research that solidifies the fact and gives flight to fiction.

  8. I’m in the travel-isn’t-necessary camp, but I agree you shouldn’t overreach and try to richly describe a place you’ve never been to. You’re guaranteed to end up with cliches if you do that. I’m sure I’ve limited my settings based on my past travels, at least when it comes to settings that I have to describe in detail.

    It’s worth pointing out that the required level of detail varies a lot. It depends on a few factors. For example, if your main character is a world-weary denizen of a certain setting, say a cop on the streets of Mexico City, and you the writer have experienced Mexico by way of a resort in Cancun and a bus trip out to Chichen Itza, you’re going to look stupid trying to capture Mexico City through the eyes of that cop, through his beliefs and biases. At best you’re going to recycle things you saw in Traffic. I’m sure this is what’s meant by “Write what you know.” And, as others have said, we all get a pass when the setting is an alien world.

    What you (think you) know might get you in trouble, though. I ran into an interesting problem with my first book, The Breach. The story jumped around to lots of locations, including Alaska, eastern Wyoming, and Zurich. I had never been to Alaska or Zurich, so I researched both online. I studied lots of pictures, watched videos, and read quite a bit. Wyoming, on the other hand, I had been to, on a road trip fifteen years earlier. I was pretty sure I remembered it correctly, and did very little research. I remembered an arid place that was more or less flat. I might have taken some intentional artistic license with it in the book, turning it into a barren desert that was flat to the horizon, but I felt like I was in the ballpark. I wasn’t. A glance at Street View would have told me that the location I was describing is actually full of rolling hills and grassland. Maybe there was a drought when I drove through. And maybe there were some flat areas that stuck in my memory better than the rest. But I would have written it differently if I’d taken the time to double-check what I thought I knew.

  9. I’m lucky enough to have traveled a great deal for business over the decades. I belong to a big global network of advertising agencies called Worldwide Partners. Every year we have a meeting somewhere in the world, which has brought me to Japan, Australia, all over Europe, Central America, etc. I traded on this experience a lot in latest book, CRIES OF THE LOST. It’s an international thriller that covers much of the territory I’ve visited. I think it’s essential that the writer is personally familiar with the places he or she writes about. Setting to me is no different from character development – it has to be three dimensional and evoke intimate connections. Travel also makes us better writers because it takes us out of the familiar, which improves upon the senses and perceptiveness. There’s a neurological reason for this I’ll bore everyone but the science wonks by explaining next post.

  10. On the subject of research, and whether we’ve done enough, I imagine many of us have heard from fans who noticed a detail we got wrong. I’ve found they still tend to be positive comments, usually written very nicely, and I usually get a kick out of them.

    In one of my books, there are scenes set aboard Air Force One. I did quite a bit of research (and learned there are actually two Air Force Ones), found lots of pictures of it, inside and out, and was able to describe the pattern of the airplane’s carpet in the book. (A major plot point actually involved a character remembering that carpet, so it mattered.) But after the book came out, a few different people e-mailed to say I’d docked the boarding stairs to the wrong door. Well… they were probably entertained by catching the mistake.

  11. Travel is great for the brain. One reason is biological. When you’re in familiar surroundings, the brain goes on autopilot, pushing functions down into the non-cognitive, low energy-using levels. When you’re in a new place, the brain’s defense mechanisms fire up, since newness could contain a threat (remember, your brain evolved running away from Sabre Tooth tigers and the like). You’re more alert, perceptive and thoughtful when your in a strange place. Another thing I like about travel is being in a country where I know little or nothing of the language. I’ll explain why next post.

  12. I love writing in cafes, bars and other public places. Noisy places, in some ways, noisier the better. Can’t bear the quiet of a library (though in every other way, libraries are my favorite places). The only hitch is when someone has a very penetrating voice, or there’s a loud, animated conversation that I can’t avoid listening to. This wrecks the whole concept. So when I’m sitting in a café in, say, Positano, and everyone’s speaking Italian (all animated by definition)I get to be amidst a crowd and blissfully unaware of the conversational content.

  13. I did a lot of research for CRIES OF THE LOST, the one novel I’ve written where the action takes places in lots of places around the world. With the tools we have today, notably Wikipedia and YouTube, you can get learn an awful lot about a place without having ever been there. In fact, the first chapter of the book was set on Grand Cayman, a place I’d never been to when I wrote that bit. I’ve been to a few other Caribbean Islands, and I did a lot of serious research, but after actually going there before finishing the book, I realized I would have missed some important detail, and gotten a few things dead wrong. Now, these are works of fiction, and I don’t believe in some sort of moral obligation to achieve perfect verisimilitude. Hardly. It’s just for me, personally, I want the people reading my books to think, yeah, that’s what it’s like there, versus, huh?

  14. I think too that writing in a setting that I don’t feel something intimate for, makes it harder to write. I don’t feel as submerged in the story myself unless I can picture my surroundings. I was writing a sequel to Trilemma set in Sydney, and I hadn’t been there for a year. The words wouldn’t come. So I had two choices, re-visit Sydney or move the setting. You’d think I would just visit Sydney again since New Zealand is comparatively close, but it gave me greater pleasure to change the setting to Waiheke island, which is more fun to visit. Now the words are flowing again.
    This might be a little controversial but I’ve been told American readers prefer to read books set in America. As a non-American that makes my life harder, since I don’t believe I can evoke American places as authentically as you guys. But then as an outsider I do see things differently enough to also be interesting. Las Vegas is a weird place! I had to write about it even though the chapter disrupted the structure of my story. I couldn’t give that baby up!

  15. I wrote a book set on Fishers Island, NY, the easternmost point on Long Island, directly off the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island. I’d been there often, usually sneaking on to land from my sailboat. It’s a very private place, mostly a refuge for big old money, though there’s a small population of regular folk who relish the island’s apartness from the rest of the world. I was unsparing in my descriptions of this xenophobia, so when I was asked by their library to come out for a reading, visions of torches and pitchforks danced in my head. Many came to voice their displeasure, but it wasn’t because I’d slandered their lack of hospitality, but that I’d messed around with the physical features of the island – adding and removing buildings, reconfiguring the topography, changing basic facts to fit my story. During the Q&A, one old lady who’d been scowling at me the whole time, said, “You moved the airport!” I told it was okay – I had a Creative License hanging on the wall in my office, entitling me to make certain strategic modifications. She looked skeptical. The thing is, I learned from them other features of the island – hidden concrete bunkers left over from WWII – that would have fitted perfectly into the story. So as much as I love research – my latest character is a researcher – I’m a firm believer in visiting your settings before writing about them.

  16. Thank you all for the very interesting and helpful comments as I’ll be working on a book set in Switzerland, and don’t plan to go there. I hate to fly. I’ll drive anywhere, even cross country, but I avoid flying these days.

  17. I hear ya, C.C.! I hate flying, too, and would far rather drive.

    I have to say, I like Chris’ Creative License. There are times when, no matter how well you know a place, you *want* to alter the landscape a bit to better suit the story. I set The Janus Legacy in the Minneapolis/Minnetonka area where I lived for about 15 years, so I could have been excruciatingly accurate if I’d wanted to be. But that wouldn’t have served the plot quite as well.

    There were points in the book where I wanted a restaurant that was somewhat patterned after one that really exists, or I wanted a bar that didn’t actually exist, but if it did, would be like the one I described. The SomaGene campus setting is taken from an actual corporate campus out there (with some enhancements), but that corporation has nothing to do with the sort of business of SomaGene. I just liked the setting and wanted SomaGene to be there.

    I love the freedom to take liberties when I want to!

  18. Lisa hits on a point that expands the setting discussion – how much liberty can you take with what’s real and remain credible, even in a work of fiction. I love research and I strive to stay within what’s possible in all my books. My personal rule is to only include something I know is possible, that I’ve either experienced myself or have a reliable source who has. I imagine a person reading the book who actually knows something about the subject at hand thinking, yeah, that’s basically true. Doesn’t have to be perfect, just close enough to keep the knowledgeable engaged in the book.

  19. I’m such a math idiot, I actually screwed up one of the little problems required to make a comment. It wiped out the whole entry. Now you know why my current protagonist is brain damaged in a way that destroyed his ability to perform anything beyond simple arithmetic.

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