Family, travel, and research

I’ve gotten into a bad habit on the weekends, namely: doing stuff. My husband has said I need to quit it, and sit home and relax. He’s right, but that doesn’t change the fact that I work five days a week, which leaves two to do things in. Like writing, although that’s not usually what I’m doing, and it definitely isn’t what I’m doing this weekend.

This weekend I’m traveling all over Kentucky with my Mom, and two of my kids. We’re looking at houses for Mom, I am conducting research, and the kids are having a broadening experience (translated: bored stiff and playing games on electronic devices in the backseat). On the first leg Mom and I chatted about a number of topics, but I thought a couple were relevant to writers.

Traveling for research is one. I’ve been to KY often enough, but on this trip we’re in areas unknown to me. For a change I’m not driving, so I can watch the scenery go by and get a feel for the region, at least until it got dark. But traveling through an area where you’ve set a book is an excellent idea. Deeper research is even better. The internet allows us to virtually explore, but there’s no real substitute for going somewhere and seeing it up close. The first leg was an overview from interstates and highways, tomorrow we’ll be on tiny back roads for hours. And checking out old houses which is an adventure of a different flavor.

I’d not say that you must visit an area to set a book there. I do think, as Mom and I talked about how much traveling we’ve done (multiple cross-country road trips, travel up the Alaska highway, and others) and where we’d still like to go, that traveling for research is vital to adding little details you might otherwise overlook. Of course, interplanetary travel isn’t possible yet, but seeing more locales on Earth make you better able to write a world with a realistic and varied biome. If you never leave home, you just don’t think about how big our world really is.

We passed a sign for the Lincoln Homestead and started talking about pioneers, what they endure, and tracing some of their paths can inspire not only stories set in the past, but what our future wave of pioneering to the stars might feel like. I talked about seeing a cabin where Dan’l Boone had wintered, with four or five other trappers, and how tiny it was – maybe ten by twelve. She in turn talked about seeing a winter camp in Alaska of a party on their way to the Gold Rush who had been wintered in, a hundred people, families and all, who hastily constructed several ten by twelve cabins and crowded in then to endure the deep cold. The cabins, erected in the 1880s, still stood when she was a girl, their roofs fallen in but otherwise intact. I have trouble imagining months stuck in a single room with several people… Even family!

Getting out and seeing for ourselves is the best way for a writer to create, taking all the odds and ends and blending them up into something new and beautiful. Plus, you can write off research traveling!


  1. I’ll second the travel for research. I completely re-wrote a setting after ground-truthing the area, so to speak. Since this locale appears in four books, getting it right was kinda important. And it can help break what I think of as geographic mental blocks. For example, in North America, the large flat swath in the middle of the continent tends to be dry, and drought is a major concern. But in Europe, the flat areas are generally wet, and flooding and water-logged soils are feared far more than drought is. That can change world-building, depending on how you arrange your planet.

  2. Our ancestors were astoundingly tough. See those little rectangular openings in these rocks?
    Those aren’t caves; they’re miners’ winter cabins from the late 1800s. Just big enough to lay out a bedroll (IIRC one is so small you’d have to curl up), and so low you have to crawl into them.

  3. Yep, ground knowledge is good to have. Just as “generic mock-medieval mock-European fantasy” is worlds apart from Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, or Ursula Vernon’s Digger, so it’s really refreshing to read something where you can see the local plants, the trees that are actually in that area, not just “the forest.”

    Brian Kerley, an indie author I know, wrote a book called The Octagon Key. While it’s definitely got a few rough edges, part of what I loved is that it’s set in somewhere very far north (the gent is an Alaskan pilot), and that creeps in all the little points of worldbuilding, from willow brush tangles (it really is a shrub up there) to the length of daylight.

    1. Time of year can make all the difference at the shore. Colors, temperatures, smells, sounds, wildlife, even textures. Gentle spring rain, reducing the “sea smell.” Thunderstorm out over the ocean during summer. On a cold winter’s day, the sea foam where the wave stops can freeze – it might be gathered up into balls by the wind, and be swept across the sand like a tumbleweed.

      And that’s without the human factor. Even in summer, a weekday at the start or end of the season is a lot different than a weekday in midsummer, to say nothing of a holiday weekend. The Thursday before Memorial Day, the boardwalk at Point Please, NJ is virtually dead; two days later the throngs of people can make it hard to move. The smells of the restaurants, of the people with their sunscreen or tanning lotion, the sound of flip flops, the colors of the swimsuits and beach towels.

      I’m going to stop rambling now.

      1. It’s plants I’m particularly concerned with.

        I may just keep them close to the beach and talk about dune grass and rugosa roses.

  4. Grin. Experiencing sleeping on the High Arctic Ice _once_, was quite enough! The new Helicopter Pilot was not told about we 3 (me, & my 2 Chainmen), 25 miles south of Camp. The Helicopter Engineer, used to our evening Cribbage-playing sessions starting after 11PM, due to my Note-calculations taking 3, or 4 hours after supper, asked the question “Where’s Neil?”, about 11:30PM.
    “Neil _who_?”, from a startled Pilot, began a frenzied round of taking rotor-blade, and tail-rotors, socks off, and cleaning bubble whilst starting helicopter’s jet engine, and warming up machine enough that the bubble would not ice-over! We were picked up at about 1AM..
    In camp, we 3 hungry folk were thawing out some cheeze whiz, and toasting frozen bread, when the Crew Manager waltzed into the Dining Room and said: “Welcome to the Arctic!”.
    !, in full Bigfoot Mode, responded:
    “I am perfectly familiar with the Arctic, but shall never become used to your way of operating up here!”.
    {The normal custom is for the Cook to lay out the exact number of clean plates, before supper, as there are folk sleeping in Camp. If there are any plate(s) left over after Supper, someone is _missing_! Crew Manager (name not typed, to prevent fame), did not make sure this Custom was followed.}
    And it was about the 10th, or 11th wintertime trip to Survey for Seismic Crews, in the Arctic. I have trouble using the little word = No…

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