Remember when you booked a flight to Marseille, France for research purposes? You toured Fort Saint-Jean, strolled around the Vieux Port, and lunched on bouillabaisse at a charming little café in Old Le Panier? Or how about the way the fishing boats sounded when they chug-chug-chugged into the harbor and the fishermen poured their catches into light-blue tables for people to come and buy right off the boat? Remember how you stepped back, wary of the fish heads and live eels slithering around?
Yeah, neither do I.
I haven’t been to Marseille, although I’d love to go—I hear their football team is quite good.
But just because I haven’t been is no reason not to send my characters there.
I don’t know how writers managed research before the Internet. Well, they probably went to places like Marseille. Experiencing a place and then writing about it is preferred, but if you’re like me and must save for several years to move an inch, then you’re glad we have the Internet. And luckily, there are several tools that make wading through information easier. Here are a few of my favorites:
Okay, you’re thinking, duh. Who doesn’t know about Google Maps? But did you know that you can create custom maps and save them to Google Drive? I love this feature. I wanted to track a character’s movement from Italy to France. Google Maps allows you to create custom pins. This was especially helpful in visualizing my character’s movement–so that I could see whether it made sense for her to travel from Rome to Marseille, and where she might stop along the way.
And nothing beats zooming in to the street view. I needed to be outside the Chanel shop in Paris (of course I did) and while that little Google car with its rotating camera hadn’t yet gone down the Rue Royale, they do have panoramic pictures from the street that I used, taken some other way (I don’t question The Google). I needed my character to come out of the shop after purchasing some gorgeous little ballet flats and have a look around the street where she may or may not have seen someone watching her from across the street. I assumed she would blithely look up and see him staring at her, but according to Google Maps, the Rue Royale is a busy street and there’s a ton of delivery vans, cars, and cyclists going by at any moment. So nobody was going to be staring at her without visual interruption. Good to know if you’ve never walked down the Rue Royale.
You probably already know about Pinterest, or maybe you’re wary of it and not sure what use it could be beyond repinning tasty-looking, professionally-shot food that you would never in a million years be able to replicate (I tried the cookie-in-a-bowl once and it looked like a sewer explosion).
Pinterest is simply a digital bulletin board, but it’s a bang up tool for people who are visual thinkers. For writers, pinning pictures of locations and people who look like their characters is priceless. Not just places, either, but fragments: an old barn. A shady strip of beach. A forest stream. Anything that evokes the feeling of the scene you want to write.
One of the best things about Pinterest is that it allows you to create “secret” boards, which means only you or people you invite to it can see it. In the manuscript I’m working on, I have a particular famous male in mind for the main love interest, and I need pictures of him in order to describe his face. But I don’t want people thinking I’m all fan-girl about him. Secret board! Or maybe the guy (or girl) isn’t a hot celebrity but someone in a different field. Maybe someone you know. Maybe someone you work with. Secret board!
Pinterest also has a robust word-search function, so that if you’re looking to see what the fishing boats look like when they come into the harbor in Marseille (the harbor that you learned about on Google Maps), then all you need to do is type in “fishing boats in Marseille,” et voila.
We don’t always think to look for insider blogs and they’re not always easy to find. They’re out there—personal travel blogs, ex-pat blogs, foodie blogs—and all offer personal looks into a place. I always think that travel blogs with personal experiences of a place (with photos!) is much better than an organized travel site. But know your location. I figured that Marseille probably gets a large share of UK tourists on account of its proximity. Therefore, UK media sites like The Guardian are likely to have features on Marseille—and they sure do. (http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/aug/20/top-10-restaurants-marseille-france)
When I was researching Stockholm for another story, I found the blog of an expat American who had married a Swedish man and blogged about her experiences learning about the culture—invaluable for an American perspective.
Travel books and sites
I’m including this as a caution. I find travel books to be hit or miss; a good way to tell whether they give a flavor for a location is to read about someplace you’ve been or live and see if it’s right. And you have to know what you’re getting. For example, Rick Steves guides are going to be geared toward budget experiences. For a city like Marseille, you often find travel info buried in larger tomes like a general France one, or Provence, so they may not be as broad or deep as you need. The best travel books I’ve found is the Wallpaper City Guide series published by Phaidon. They gives an obsessive level of information—that’s what we want—and they are focused on a full cultural experience. My copy of guide to Marseille is fantastic. They have an impressive library of these guides for major cities that aren’t always concentrated on, like Osaka and Sevilla, Spain. (http://www.phaidon.com/store/travel) I highly recommend them.
What about you? What tools do you use for research? Do you read books, search the web, or travel to places? I’d love to hear about your methods!
Sierra Godfrey writes fiction with international settings and always a mention of football (soccer) or two. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a quarterly contributor to the Writers in the Storm. Her non-fiction essays have been featured on Maria Shriver’s Shriver Report and Architects of Change website, and in the anthology, Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions (Nothing But the Truth Press, 2014). She writes weekly for Football.com and other blogs, and is also a freelance graphic designer. She lives in the foggy wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Come visit her at www.sierragodfrey.com or talk with her on Twitter @sierragodfrey.