Research on Location

Key Largo


by Taffy Cannon                                                  

You can do the necessary location research to set a story or novel in your own neighborhood or home town by taking a walk or a short drive.  Okay, maybe a couple of drives. But suppose you’d like to try a less familiar location. Perhaps  your story simply demands to be set elsewhere. It’s even possible that you haven’t planned anything at all, but just went on vacation—only to discover that you are somewhere that would be a great setting for a story.

The distinction between researching a place and experiencing it is important. You can read a hundred books and look at a thousand pictures and watch endless documentary footage, but none of that can put you inside a location. To truly experience a place requires that you immerse yourself in the sights and sounds and smells and—most important of all—the feel of it.

And once you’ve gotten that immersion, it’s entirely possible to write fiction set in one location when you are physically elsewhere. I’ve done it many times.

Once you’ve decided to experience a location, start by looking at everything with fresh eyes. Clear your mind entirely and cast your gaze about as if you were a motion picture camera.  Look for the unexpected: chartreuse mailboxes, orange daylilies growing by the roadside, street signs shaped like Hershey’s kisses.

Take lots of notes in whatever format is most comfortable and include even obscure details you are absolutely certain you will never use.  You can be terse here as long as you’ll be able to interpret your notes later.  Get down details: colors, smells, temperature, ambience. If something strikes you as odd, make a note of it right away, before you accustom yourself to the location and it begins to seem normal.

If you’re comfortable recording on your phone or laptop, that’s a great way to make fast notes on the fly. Making oral notes is a particularly useful technique while driving, though obviously inadvisable while you battle rush hour in a strange city. (And making notes any other way than by dictation while driving is illegal many places and plain crazy anywhere.)

Regardless of how you accumulate your notes, tran­scribe and expand your observations as soon as possible.  While you’re pulling this together, additional details will surface, little things you’d already forgotten about. Get as much of this down as you can while it’s fresh.

Take pictures. Take lots of pictures. Have enough memory to be extravagant with what you shoot and plan to pare it down later. This doesn’t mean you need fifty shots of that cat asleep by the bait bucket, but do go beyond the generic panorama of the wharf. Get close-ups of the odd hitching posts and a shot of the flock of birds hovering on the dock.  Don’t worry about composition if you can get the detail you want.  And don’t forget to ask somebody what kind of birds they are.

If you can videotape an area or event, you can get all of this detail and give a running commentary while you’re shooting.  Even better, have a companion do the videotaping while you do everything else.

Talk to the locals.

You can be circumspect if you don’t want to say you’re researching a writing project.  An expression of interest is usually enough to get most folks talking freely.  Chat up the motel desk clerk, the coffee shop waitress, the fellow leading the tour of the cannery.  You may or may not want to take notes while you do this.  I generally like to write things down on the sly unless it’s a situation like that cannery tour where it seems perfectly reasonable to be taking notes.

But if anybody asks what you’re doing or why you’re writing down what they said, just tell them you’re a writer researching a story.  Because you are.

Notice peculiarities in local names of people, places, and things.   Are all the streets named for Revolutionary War heroes?  Is every third person called Witherspoon?  Are the local names French, or Indian, or purely functional?

Listen for local jargon or expressions.  Do folks say “plum tuckered out” or “fuggedaboudit”?  Are women called “ma’am” or “lady” or “honey”?  Are groups referred to as “youse guys” or “y’all”?

How do people dress?  Do they wear three-piece suits, bib overalls, or cutoffs and t-shirts?  Are their pets Persian cats or rangy hounds?  Do they drive Porsches, rusted-out Chevies, SUVs or pickup trucks with gun racks and free-roving dogs in the back?  Where’s the local high school, what’s its team called and what are the school colors?

Don’t be afraid to do the tourist stuff when you’re in a faraway place.  A lot of folks worry that this will brand them as “not being from here.”  Well, guess what?  You’re not from there and everybody’s already noticed anyway.  Isn’t that how you happened to be there in the first place?  And why you’re staying at a motel instead of your own house?

Self-promotion is an art, and you can learn a lot about a place by the face it shows the world.  If a town is the Button Capital or home of the Surfing Championships or the place where Davey Crockett tied one on, it’s part of what makes that place special.

So take the guided tours, visit the hokey sites, and eat the local specialties.  If you can’t bring yourself to order tripe stuffed with pinto beans, at least ask the waitress all about it.

Collect paper, and get it all!   I’m talking about maps, brochures, throwaway guides, postcards, guidebooks.  If there’s a rack of brochures in the motel lobby or at the Visitor’s Center (and you will be dropping by the Visitor’s Center) take one of everything that might possibly be of later interest and a few more for good measure.  That’s why folks publish these things, after all.

Read the local newspaper if there still is one.  Listen to the local radio station.  Watch the local TV news.

Keep a particular eye out for small, locally published books about the area or its peculiari­ties.  These are usually full of valuable information and they’re almost impossible to find anywhere else.  Because they’re often privately published, they can be expensive. If they don’t fit the budget just now, at least write down the titles and  publisher addresses in case you decide you want them later.

As you’re accumulating all this paper and stuff, you may start to think that some of it is unnecessary and expendable.

Of course it is.  The problem is that you won’t realize just what part of it you don’t need until later.

The temptation to discard things will be strong as you labor to close the suitcase.  Resist it.  Mail a box home if you must.  I usually pack a couple of small empty carryon bags, figuring that I’ll fill them up by the time I get home.  And I always do.

However you manage the logistics, trust me on this one.  Don’t throw away anything until you get home and sort through it.  I guarantee that whatever you pitch will be exactly the item you’ll want later.

Finally, the most important thing you can do while researching on location is in many ways the simplest:   Keep an open mind.

You may think you know exactly how you want to use an area or location, and your ideas and plans may be spot on. They may also turn out to be totally ridiculous. If that’s the case, let a place suggest other possibilities to you.  They might be even better than what you originally had in mind.

Bon voyage!

[Author’s Note: This is also my own “bon voyage” to the Get It Write blog. I’ve greatly enjoyed working with Janet Dawson, who put together this wonderful collection of talent on behalf of Perseverance Press. Thanks also to Meredith Phillips and Sue Trowbridge behind the scenes. Please follow my intermittent personal blog at and visit


3 Responses

  1. Very helpful and specific advice! I’m going to follow it this summer in Belgium.

  2. That’s how I wound up sending Jeri Howard to Paris in Witness to Evil. I was there and the story was crowding in around me. It’s been a pleasure working with you, Taffy, and best of luck. Janet

  3. Exactly right, Taffy. The other day I was cleaning out STUFF, making room for more stuff–you know–and found a bunch of the little notebooks I’d filled in just that way for earlier books. Nobody could use all those details, but there’s no way to know when you’re there what you’ll wish you’d kept, so I wrote and saved way more than I ever expected to use.

    The little notebooks I like for that purpose are spiral bound, 3″ X 5″–easy to tuck in a pocket, and unobtrusive to onlookers, if anybody even bothers to look. And pictures. And freebies.

    Sometimes being an ordinary tourist or visitor works, but in one situation where I wanted to interview people, I asked my local newspaper ahead of time to let me write a feature article. That got me press credentials, which came in mighty handy.


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