How to Write About a Place You’ve Never Been

Setting is something that I’ve always struggled with. With fiction, the world in which you are writing about doesn’t have to exist in real life. You can make up anything you want. The hard part is simply remembering to draw a map. When the characters in your story live in the real world, however, like San Francisco, for instance, it’s important to get the setting down right. People travel there from around the world. The Golden Gate Bridge and trolley cars have become iconic. But if you yourself have never been, how do you write about a place effectively?

For one, you could book a flight to San Francisco, take lots of pictures while you’re there, and plenty of notes too, but not all writers are in a position to do so. What really helps a writer develop a realistic, detailed setting is research. There are plenty of websites and tools out there to help with your research:

#1 Google Earth

Google Earth is available to download for free. You can search almost anywhere in the world, and view detailed satellite images to get an idea of the landscape of the setting you are writing about. You can change the angle as well. Maybe your character is on an airplane, descending into an airport, and you want to see what an aerial view looks like. Or maybe your character is standing on a street, walking into a bookstore, and you want to see what the outside of the building looks like. Google Earth can help with that (and so can Google Maps).

#2 Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet is an online travel guide. About five seconds before typing this, I went to their website and typed in “Thailand,” because, for the purposes of this post, that is where my fictional character in my fictional novel goes for two weeks in summer. From there, I found things for my fictional character to do while in Thailand, like visit the Elephant Nature Park, where my character meets this Elephant named Lucky (pictured below). Lucky is blind in both eyes (which symbolizes something–I haven’t quite gotten that far in the fictional development of my fictional novel). I have never been to Thailand, but by using Lonely Planet, I can search and be directed to websites and photos that give me enough details to describe, in this case, the elephants and the sanctuary that they live in accurately. Travel blogs are also good sources for this kind of information.

Isn't she just the cutest?
Isn’t she just the cutest?

#3 Interviews

If you want even more detail, try interviewing someone who has been to the location you’re writing about. Interviewing locals can sometimes be one of the best ways to achieve this detail, in fact. For example, when I go to San Francisco, I usually go out to different restaurants with my boyfriend, who’s a cook. Sometimes we bring a long our friend who lives and attends school in the city, and generally, he has never heard of half of the places we try. If I wanted to write a story about a young, twenty something male, living in the city and attending school, that knowledge might help me to focus on the places my characters would realistically eat at.

– Melanie Figueroa

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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