Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Travelling for Research

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Whoa!

Travelling for writing research is an exciting way to make your work genuine and also justify a vacation, but the timing of such travel can be difficult to determine: when in the writing process should you go?. I've travelled a few times to check out a location at various points in the progress of a project, and I'd like to share some insights.

To be clear I'm speaking specifically about fiction, and about a work that already exists to a certain degree, either in the writer's mind, or as something that is partially, or even substantially, complete. In other words, I don't mean, "I think I might like to write a novel set in Japan." That trip would be more of a survey than specific research meant to add and verify detail.

I am assuming that like myself you care about detail, about presenting to the reader places grounded in reality. I guess this is more of a realist fiction thing, but I dig the idea that someone can go to a place where I've sent my characters and see, hear, and smell the same things. It may not be important to full appreciation of the story, but it helps me deliver a realistic depiction of action when it is grounded in reality. I cannot explain why this is important to me as a writer. For me as a reader it's somewhat cool to read fiction set in a place I've visited, where I can see that, yes indeed, the Dairy Queen where the knife fight between the two elderly physicists occurs (not a real book) is situated on that particular corner, just like in the book. But it's hardly essential. We're talking fiction, right?

I suppose as a writer I feel that fiction, being invented, is already a shaky proposition. "You mean you just made all that up?" Grounding it in reality at least places it on a stable platform.

Okay, let's say that you, like me, want to maintain a level of honest detail in your fiction. You have a piece constructed in your head, perhaps in progress, and you are trying to decide a pivotal question about research travel: should you go before you write the section or piece in question, or after? 

After.

My experience says after. Don't just trust me, I originally received this advice from my friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, who travelled to the southwestern United States to research locations for her novel Perfecting. Her advice to me was simple, profound, and, I would discover later, accurate. If you go before you write, you have no specific targets in mind. The entire area of your research (let's say it's a specific town) must be studied thoroughly, and you have to hope that there actually is an alley beside that restaurant where the lovers can rendezvous for their post-pizza quickie (not a real book), because you didn't specifically look there.

(I should say that we are discussing an "or" option, expecting that, like me, various factors (financial, job, and/or family commitments) prevent you from the ideal: going both before and after the section is composed. If you can do both, do it!)

Yes, writing it first means you will have to rewrite later, but as long as you don't introduce some impossible but essential prop (there is no Ferris wheel in downtown Plentywood, Montana), and that you keep the writing initially generic – there's always a convenience store, a coffee shop, a lawyer's office – you just need to give the location a name and some mild details you are willing to change later, and accept the fact you'll need to rewrite to adjust details. But you were rewriting anyway, right? Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.

I myself travelled most of the route of my character Nathan Soderquist in The Sky Manifest. Using that Internet thing, I found someone who needed his car delivered to Victoria, and I drove it over Superior, to Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, into Saskatchewan, down and across Montana, west through the mountains, then onward to Seattle, where I ferried across to Victoria, snapping photos along the way. The book was a first draft at the point, and there was a fair amount of work to do when I got home. And that's not to say I did not violate some of reality. I invented a town in Manitoba, and I put a lot of moose on a highway that was not signed for them as a hazard. Sometimes the rewriting necessary to meet reality is too monumental. Then – hey, it's just fiction, right?

Here are some photos from my journey for The Sky Manifest. If you hover your mouse of each image, you will get a relevant quote from the novel. Click to see a larger image and a page reference:
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should mention one Internet tool that can help you tremendously with exteriors, especially with your first crack at the scene, or if visiting it is not possible: Google Street View. It'll take you photographically to street level, where you can gawk around like a tourist and drink in many details of the surroundings: stores locations, decorations, sidewalks, even the dress of pedestrians and what kind of flowers grow in the window boxes.


And one other quick, related tip. I set part of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World in India, but wasn't able at the time to visit. Travel blogs are an excellent source of information, just informal ones by normal folks. They tend to include descriptions and occurrences that, if borrowed and adapted with judicial care, can very much enrich a story.

And for those who earn any kind of income writing: you can claim research expenses on your income tax. Be reasonable – if a trip is 50% pleasure and 50% research, you can only write off half the cost, but that's a legitimate expense – money you spent to earn money. Just keep your receipts, and document well.

Now, I'm of to write a story set in Maui...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Brian Panhuyzen

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of The Moon (Cormorant, 1999) and a novel, The Sky Manifest (ECW, 2013).

Go to Brian Panhuyzen’s Author Page