Enjoying a drink at a Dubrovnik bar built into a cliff
I’m back! I hope everyone had a lovely week, whether you celebrated the royal wedding or did your best to avoid it. Thanks to various public holidays and William and Kate’s wedding, last week was a three-day working week in England, so I took it off and went to the Balkans with my husband.
When I first proposed the trip to him, I presented it as a beautiful holiday destination—what could beat Croatian beaches, Dalmatian (coast, not dog) villages, and several days exploring the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
But it didn’t take him long to wrestle the truth from me: this would mostly be a research trip because the novel I’m writing is set in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a place I’ve never been.
Dubrovnik's marble streets at night
Fortunately, my husband loves traveling as much as I do, and he’s very supportive of my writing. He’s also very patient, and barely complained at all as I stopped to take photo after photo of the ground, the sky, and everything in between. (I’ll bore you with some of them in my next few posts.)
Oddly enough, the week before I went I read a really interesting blog post by one of my favorite authors, Roxanne St. Claire, about her novel Shiver of Fear. It’s set in Northern Ireland, and Rocki said in the post that she’s never been there.
Instead, she relied on various sources, including someone she knows who lives in Belfast, to get the details right.
By the time I read Rocki’s post, I’d already written 14 chapters of my story. I’d gotten extensive information from a good friend of mine, a Croatian woman whose husband is Bosnian. I’d watched videos of Sarajevo on YouTube. I’d read about its history, including accounts of the war that I’ll never be able to erase from my mind. I’d bought a phrasebook and taught myself some of the language (which would have been impossible except I lived in Prague for three years and there are a lot of similarities between Czech and Bosnian).
I’d done my best to describe Sarajevo and Mostar, despite never having been there.
Once I arrived in Bosnia, I was happy to see that many things were as I’d imagined, but I also realized how many details I’d gotten wrong. It also hit me that most of my scenes are set in a car (yawn), and that’s probably because I could picture the inside of a car and deep down I wasn’t confident enough to describe locations around the two cities my novel’s set in.
I took Roxanne St. Claire’s Shiver of Fear with me on my trip. The reader in me got lost in the story, enough to cry at the end and to be shocked by a crucial twist. The writer in me, though, couldn’t get her blog post out of my head. How well did she describe this place she’d never visited?
I’m no expert on Northern Ireland. I’ve only been there a couple of times, and I know a little about the politics and Troubles because my father-in-law is from the Antrim coast. But I was amazed at how accurate Rocki’s descriptions were—even down to the fact that smoking’s illegal in pubs so smokers crowd around outside.
I was really impressed by the depth of both her research and her imagination.
I think writers who set their stories in contemporary locations that really exist are under a lot of pressure to get the details right. To some extent, if you make up a small town, you can create the details yourself, as long as your characters seem like they could come from that region. For example, if you create a small town in Texas but your characters speak and act like they’re from California, readers will be unlikely to believe your setting actually exists.
Writers who choose historical settings also have a huge job of getting the details right, especially if your story’s set in a time and place readers know (or think they know) a lot about, like Regency England. But you have one saving grace: none of your readers have ever been to Regency England. You have to do substantial research, but quite a lot can be left up to your imagination. If you get details wrong, savvy readers may be thrown out of the story, but they’re unlikely to be offended that you got their culture wrong.
Mysterious doors in a cliff, Dubrovnik
Then there are those writers who make up an entire world. Again, as with all writing, there’s research involved, but the world-building is mostly up to you. Your big job is not contradicting yourself with any of those details.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing a few posts about traveling for research purposes. Later this week, I’ll tell you why it was important for me to visit the place my story is set in. Next week, I’ll share some tips I learned about how to make your research trip worthwhile, and how to research a setting if you can’t visit a place.
But first, do you think you need to visit a place before you can describe it well? Have you ever traveled somewhere so you could research it for a story? Do you restrict your settings to places you already know well? When you’re reading, does it throw you out of the story if a place you know well isn’t described accurately?