Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 28, 2015

Research trips: No passport required

Sierra Godfrey

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:

Google Maps

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!

About Sierra

Sierra-Godfrey-180x180Sierra 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.

45 comments on “Research trips: No passport required”

  1. Thanks for this post. I was just struggling with getting some details right. Travel agents should shudder when they read this!

    1. I love your comment about travel agents. I have a sneaky feeling there will be a lot of writers going down travel rabbit holes now. 🙂

  2. Sierra, this is amazing info!

    I usually write about areas I'm familiar with, but in my current WIP, my protag. is traveling all over the West, going to small rodeos. Most of them don't have their own websites, and photos mostly show bucking horses, not the terrain.

    Heading to Google maps now...love the site pinning - didn't know about that, either!

    Saving this in my 'research' folder!

    1. Thanks, Laura! I confess, I LOVE making my characters travel because I love doing the research. I bet your rodeo research is fascinating. I love how much I learn from writing research.

      1. My rodeo research is the funnest, Sierra! I got to attend a bull riding school last spring! Only audited...did NOT get on a bull! Though if I were 15 years younger...

  3. Thanks, Sierra,
    Time to go on a virtual vacation...er, I mean, research trip.
    I love Pinterest for books, but never thought of Google maps.

  4. I typically write about my broad local area (Oklahoma/Texas/Missouri/Colorado) since I've been to all of these places and have lived in three of them. Colorado only as a small child and for about two weeks, but I've been through it multiple times after growing up. But I would love for a character to travel to France, Ireland, Jamaica. These are great tips. Some, ok most, I use. Google Maps I didn't know all that about. I love your tip on that! I don't use books much, for reasons you mentioned, but I keep local maps and atlases for cities like Dallas which is invaluable since I lived there and it helps me focus on certain areas. I LOVE Secret Boards on Pinterest!!! I have characters for two different books hidden there. 🙂

    Great post. Thanks.

    1. I didn't know about the secret boards. And even though I use Google Maps for other things, it didn't occur to me to use it for writing research. Duh! 🙂

  5. Thank you for this incredibly handy information. I used Google maps, streets and earth extensively when I moved across country, and thank goodness for it! Almost moved into a very bad situation, but a nice trip down the streets of western NY from the Bay Area averted disaster. Why I didn't apply it to my writing I'll never know. But thanks! I needed that. LOL

  6. Sierra, this is a great post and came at a handy time for me, since I'm about to set a novel in a place I'd dearly love to travel to but can't afford (as child #5 heads for college, ow). Thank you for the helpful advice!

    1. I'm so glad! Sometimes I think, how dare I write about a place I've never been, but it can be done. Look at enough pictures and immerse yourself in enough writings and you'll get a flavor for the place....and the flavor is what you're after. (Ala slithering eels in blue fishermen's tables!)

  7. Thanks for sharing this information, Sierra. My current book is set in Connecticut and I need to do some more research about the places. In my head, I have a clear vision, but I haven't looked to see how accurate it is.

    1. I always start this way, too-- with a clear vision, and then reality sets in when I scratch a little and find out I was way off. These tools save us from sounding like idiots 🙂

      1. Unless you change the names. 🙂
        I use real places to inspire my locations but change the names and details. I pick and choose photos based on that clear picture I have in my head and create a new place. Not all stories allow for that, obviously, but it's fun when it works.

  8. Great post especially for someone who writes historical fiction and like you, can't afford to travel to the places I'm interested in writing about. I'd also like to recommend Google Earth since that helps me see things better as well. Also, pretty much every country, city, county/shire, what have you has an archive website. A lot of have scanned photos, maps, articles, letters, and other important documents and can usually be searched for free.

  9. Great post, Sierra! And fantastic timing - my new project will require more overseas "travel" ... this will make it much easier. 🙂

  10. So many of your steps match how I think (hello, Pinterest!) that I had to bookmark your post so I can make use of the rest of your suggestions. Thanks!

  11. I have yet to post a question to Google that it hasn't been able to answer. This is pretty incredible, especially when I look back to the 80s and remember the hours I spent in the University of Illinois library, searching for print books and articles on my research topics.

  12. Sierra, I love Google live. You can do a actual scan of anywhere in the world. I recently went to a very special house I used in a story to show one of my friends how I knew that the house had turrets jutting out from the front and back on the roof. I've used them to travel all over for years.

    You can google maps and tons of other nifty stuff. No more trekking to the library or flipping pages in an encyclopedia. Britannica is also on line. Thanks for this great post ... keep surfing the net 🙂

  13. YouTube, too! I use it for all the reasons you noted, plus sounds. Thanks for your insights. After this post, if I ever do get to make a research trip, will I get to write it off? Or will the IRS crack down on us because of these great resources?

  14. These are fantastic tips - tools that I use all the time for mundane things (like recycled pallet furniture) but not for writing. Will definitely be giving them a fresh look.

  15. I should use Pinterest better. I downloaded Google Earth to help with place details and it is dangerous...because it's so interesting to look around, look at places you've been and see how they've changed...I am tied down partly by money and more by kids, so I love your ideas.

  16. Great post, Sierra. I've been fortunate to visit the locations in my WIP (Provence and the French Riviera) because travel is my addiction but these tools are still helpful. There's always something more I want to know. I also collect maps and brochures while I'm travelling for future reference. And I'm always surprised by what interesting details I can find in my photos when I take a closer look.

  17. Great tips! I wrote my dissertation when there wasn't much yet to the Internet and few books or records were digitized. I also took notes longhand! Having some many sources now available online has made research so much easier--and as you said, available without traveling-- although there is some magic to going through dusty old archival materials. 🙂

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