Writing this towards the end of October, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is nearly upon us, and for many writers, it is a time for the final planning ahead of the 50,000-word count challenge.
Even if you’re not setting yourself a writing challenge, all stories are written with a setting as the backdrop; a city, a cave, a far-off planet. How exactly do real authors bring their settings to life for us? What might we record about a place so that we can confidently write as though we were there, perhaps weeks later when we settle down and put pen to paper?
What is ‘location scouting’?
‘Location scouting’ means going to visit the setting for your story in real life, in order to record details that will help you write at a later time. It is usually used in the context of trying to find a suitable location for tv and film, but I think it works just as well for novels!
You might choose to visit the real setting your novel is based on, e.g. London or the Amazon rainforest, or you could visit a place that is similar to your made up setting in order to gather some ideas to help you ‘world-build’ later on e.g. a castle, a village or a desert plain.
If you’re still not entirely sold on whether you need to go location scouting for your story, perhaps the following reasons will sway you:
1. Travel = fun!
Planning a trip to your chosen story setting is not just a research mission, but an adventure! You could discover a place you’ve never been before or even get to rediscover a place you thought you knew well from a fresh perspective.
2. Bring your story to life
It is the tiny details that can really animate your story; taking the time to make the setting real for the reader could be the difference between putting your book down after one chapter and flying through to the end. Include real details; architecture, street names, flora, fauna etc.
3. Bring your character to life
Walking the same streets that your character will traverse in your story will help you appreciate their perspective; why do they walk in one direction over another, which areas to avoid, what the place feels like or smells like; help the reader to walk in your characters shoes.
4. New opportunities
It is very likely that visiting the real place your story is set will reveal new opportunities and ideas to include in your writing. Perhaps you stumble upon a colourful street performer that you’d love your character to wander past in your book. Maybe you discover a dark, twisty alleyway that would be just perfect for your foot chase between the thief and your protagonist.
Ahead of embarking on your research mission, consider doing the following up front so you can make the most of your trip:
1. Pre-planning – season, day and time
Think carefully about when you will do your trip so that you make the most out of it. If your story is set during the winter, there’s no point planning a summer trip as the place will look completely different and the details you record will be useless. Consider also how a place changes from day to night; a park could be full of life during the day but might make you feel uncomfortable at night when the trees cast shadows and no one is around.
2. Research the place before you get there
You can do a lot of the work up front by spending a little time finding out more about the location before your visit. Does your location have a tourism website? Is there a film, book, song or tv show based on the location? Are there images online from other visitors? Could you research popular haunts via Trip Advisor?
3. Do a run-through
Consider doing a practice run on Google Maps via the ‘street view’ functionality, which allows you to effectively walk along your route from the comfort of your own home. Remember that these images are likely out of date, but it’ll help you pick out key locations you want to explore on the day or places you want to avoid.
4. Charge your phone
Make sure you have a full battery and even better if you have a spare battery pack. You will hopefully be taking lots of photos of things that catch your eye, so make sure you also have enough memory on your phone or camera.
5. Pack the essentials
Consider packing all of the following handy items so you don’t find yourself in a pickle!
(Remember that you are there to add details to your story, make sure you have made a note of the key scenes and places you will need to write about!)
6. Stay safe
Tell someone where you plan to go and what time you expect to return, especially if your setting is remote or there is a chance of poor phone signal. Better yet, take a friend and make it a real adventure!
So you’ve done the planning and you’re all packed and ready to do some research! What exactly should you be looking out for?
Take photos and videos
Go to town taking pics of everything that captures your eye, ensuring you get some wider shots as well as close-ups of interesting spots.
Remember that you need to record the normal as well as the things that stand out! Take photos of the architecture, everyday people, shops, signposts and vehicles.
Taking videos will help you capture the sound of the environment, and will help you get a good idea later on of the position of things in relation to each other; for example if your story includes a chase along a high street, could you recreate the route so you know how long it will take to run from one end of the street to another? How long does it take your character to walk from home to work?
Pick up mementoes
Keep a beady eye out for local guidebooks, flyers, menus, brochures and adverts for local parks, museums and places of interest to look at later on.
Make lots of notes!
Use your senses. What can you smell? Perhaps you are in a city known for its industrial works – can you smell this? What can you hear? Nowhere is completely silent, listen out for echoes, background noise, insects or wind blowing through the trees. What can you taste? Is the air salty? Earthy?
How does being in the location make you feel? Think about this in relation to the time of day. Do you feel safe or a little scared, do you feel exposed or hidden? Is it busy or quiet? Are there places nearby you would avoid? Why?
Annotate your map printout with things that have changed since the map was printed, or standout paths, roads etc you want to remember for your story.
Make a note of who uses the spaces. Is it largely commuters? Families? Is there a homeless community nearby or is it a popular kid hangout? Are there areas in the environment you could make note of for being used by largely one group of people e.g. race, age? What activities are carried out in your location and is there a difference in use between day and night?
Remember to walk in your characters shoes as well as your own. What will be on their mind as they use the space? Are they afraid as they walk through town? What might a criminal look out for in your location for example? Hiding places and escape routes? What would a mother be aware of as opposed to a child?
Over to you
I hope these tips have been of use to you and that they help you to accurately record your location, ready to write about later on! If this article has helped you I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!