Wednesday, February 15, 2012

To Travel or Not To Travel

To Travel or Not To Travel
By Brad R. Cook

This is the third article in my series about researching your novel.

To Travel or Not to Travel – that is the question that every writer asks themselves when researching a foreign setting for their novel, article or whatever. We all know the old adage, Write What You Know, and it’s true, but what do you do if you don’t know about the place your character inhabits.
The Good Points of Traveling
Immerse Yourself in the World of your Novel – Walking your character streets, passing by the buildings they stay in, the smells that fill the air, the sounds of the city. Each place is unique and comes with a fingerprint of sights, sounds, smells, and attitude. Knowing that is what allows you to capture that city and the best way to learn those intimate details is to be there.

Easier to Learn the Details – They say the best way to learn a language is to go there, and their right. Once you’re immersed in the culture, those tiny intimate details will pop out all
around you.

The Trip is Tax Deductable – Thank you Uncle Sam, just remember to tell your tax professional about all your writing expenses.

See the World and Experience New Cultures – We all know the stereotypes, each culture has one, but as writers we need to reach beyond the cliché and find the heart of a people. That is what you want to capture in your novel, that’s what will bring true authenticity to your work.

It's more fun than online research – I love sitting in front of my computer and using the internet to answer every little question my mind can comprehend, but I would rather walk around the Earth and ask something new of everyone I meet. Travel is fun.

The Bad Points, Why Not To Travel
The Expense – airfares, hotels, and more, it just keeps adding up. Most of us like to use our vacations as research trips, but you may want to go somewhere no one wants to go.

There are some place in the world you just can't go – and they are usually the best places
to write about.

Can't Research Everything – you can’t possibly research every little detail, but that’s not the point. Research what you can, and get as much detail about the important aspects of your story or character.

Not traveling doesn’t mean you can’t write a great novel that captures the setting perfectly – Bram Stoker wrote Dracula without ever setting foot in Transylvania.

So, if you want to be like Bram – and who doesn’t want to write one of the greatest Gothic novels of all time – here are a few tips to save you the trip.

Google Maps – I love the internet, it makes research so much easier and allows you to use tools like Google Maps, or any of the other online atlases. Not only can you get the layout of the city, but you can “walk” the route your character would take. You can see what they would actually see and include that detail.

Travel Books – are a great way to get the overall details of a place, they include all kinds of facts and points of interest. A good reference but it shouldn’t be your only one.

YouTube Travel Videos – can’t get to a destination, watch someone who did. Family videos are one way, but many travel bureaus also produce videos, and if your big action sequence takes place in a famous building, there’s a good chance someone posted a video walkthrough.

TV – cable used to be the internet and it can still help you research. The Travel Channel, The History Channels, Court TV, and the Real Estate Channel can be invaluable resources, but they shouldn’t be your only reference, remember to always double-check your facts and get multiple sources for any subject you research. TV might twist a few things here and there for ratings but at the core of the program could be some juicy little details you can include.

Movies – Hollywood might put out some bad movies but one thing they do very well are the period pieces. Clothing styles, fabrics, architecture, slang, technology – Hollywood spends millions of dollars on every film getting it just right, so use their R&D for your benefit.

Pictures – they can be worth a thousand details. Find a picture of your main character, their car, that locket they wear, the painting that is the main clue of your mystery – Google Image is a great way to track them down, but then post it near your computer. Inspiration is one reason but being able to describe the subtle details that are right in front of you, will give your work depth.

Real-Estate Listings – need a house, building, or office park? Find a real one! I love this and I’m not the only writer I know who pulls this trick. In my last book, my character had an office in a landmark office building. By acting like a perspective renter, I was able to get floor plans, rates, and other information that I included in my novel. So find your character’s house or apartment, because having that kind of detail will cause your reader to fall deeper under your spell.

I hope that helps and Happy Travels!

Buy a Book About Your Book – For this week’s Writers’ Lens Giveaway I am offering a $10 Gift Card to Barnes and Noble. As I said on Monday, I’d explain today. In order to help you do a little research without having to travel around the world. I want you the winner of the gift card to buy a travel book, a book about one of the themes in your novel, or some other aspect of your novel – it’s about bringing depth to your details. What we all want is someone to contact you and just to say how well you captured their favorite place.

If you want to read the other two articles I’ve written on Researching Your Novel you can look back through The Writers’ Lens Archive or head over to


  1. I just have a comment on the point about travel expenses being tax deductible. That's true, but how much of it is deductible depends on a lot of factors. It's unlikely a writer would recoup the entire cost of the trip via tax deduction alone. Absolutely turn over all your receipts to your accountant, but don't expect to break even on the cost courtesy of Uncle Sam.

    However, what you don't recoup up as a business expense, you'll make in profit from the million or so copies you'll sell on the day your amazing book launches.

    When I was a very young writer, I was told that the IRS code was set up so that writers could not deduct research expenses until the year in which the projece was published and drew income. It was treated as a cost of goods sold instead of a business expense. That meant an author could be out-of-pocket on expenses for years before they were able to deduct any of them. I'm sure glad that's not the case now.

  2. Janet's right - I did not mean to imply you could recoup the entire trip's expenses. That will never happen, writers can get many expenses deducted, but there are limits - talk to a tax expert - I am not one. My point was simply if you are going make certain to tell your accountant.