Research Travel 2020
By Abby L. Vandiver
I love doing research. I once wrote a blog post on it and maybe one day, I’ll share it here. But what it boiled down to was that I Google everything. I love finding out more about a subject than what’s in front of me (book, television program, blog post, it doesn’t matter, I want to dig further!) I’m the one who will go on a trip and find a tour company to tell me all about the history, neighborhood and people of the place I’m visiting. And me wanting to get all the info I can is no different when I write a book.
Because I write murder mysteries, I often have to research to find out the means used by the killer and effects of it. Like what a certain poison does, or how long it takes for a body to get cold (all gory stuff, I know, but necessary). I like to say that I mix fact with fiction because it has always been important to me to get things right in my books. I really feel that fiction needs to be swayed by reality. And one way to give a book an authentic feel is by the setting.
Setting is so important in a story. It helps your reader get inside the story with your characters. To know how a place feels. Smells. How the people talk and interact. It gives your story life. So of course, I like to “investigate” my setting because it’s hard to write about a place if you don’t have firsthand information about it. And how do I do that?
Remember how I said I like to visit different cities and take tours? Well, that’s all part of it. But first let me tell you what kind of traveler I am. I have been known to wake up early in the morning and decide to hop in my car and take a trip. Not a one tank, out-for-the-day kind of trip. No. I mean an 8 or 12-hour car ride kind where I pack a suitcase or two, or on occasion I have been known just to buy clothes once I get there. I usually do it for the enjoyment of it all, but I have also been known to do it as research for a story I was writing.
I haven’t been able to do it for every story I’ve written. Some are too far away. I once wrote a story where my main character was a Biblical archaeologist and she travelled the globe—Jerusalem, Belize, and the Andaman Islands, to name a few. No way could I travel to all those places. (For one, I’m semi afraid of flying and then there’s the cost—out of this world!)
So, for me as a writer when I couldn’t get to the places in my story, I feel lucky to live in a time where there is Google Earth. It can take you anywhere. I once traveled down a street in Italy on it, saw the people, read the street signs, “crossed” the street to “look” in the window of a coffee shop. But it’s a static adventure, the only thing moving is my mouse as I follow the satellite picture on my computer up the road. Not the best experience, but a nice futuristic-like and viable option for my research endeavors.
For my stories that take place in the States, though, I do like to go to the places I write about. I will fly, but for the most part I drive.
Now I’m working on a new book. It’s set in Mississippi. And it’s even a new genre than the one I usually write in and I wanted, of course, to get a feel for the place. Normally, as you probably know by now, I would just hop into my car and set my GPS. I’d talk to the people, visit the places I want to write about, eat the local cuisine and learn a little about the history. But these aren’t normal times. Our world has been turned upside down. I know that travelling is starting to open back up, but each place is different, and I’d rather stay put in a place where I know the lay of the land (and the response and updates on the pandemic response).
But alas, I found something that wasn’t as good as actually being there, but a whole bunch better than Google Earth. A virtual tour!
I Googled (of course) a company in Natchez (the city in Mississippi where my story takes place) and found the Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours (Miss Lou stands for Mississippi Louisiana and not a woman’s name (yep, I thought that at first, too)) and guess what? They took me on a virtual tour! We did it on our smart phones (how smart!). I got to talk to the tour guide and ask questions, just like if I were there. He highlighted all the important spots and then told me all about them. Since we were on our phones, whenever he showed me monuments and plaques, I was able to take pictures of them.
As you can see they are kind of blurry (I took them on my phone as he held up his phone to it, I know, I know, complicated, but it worked), but I can add these to my scrapbook and refer back to them whenever I need as I write my new book.
It was such a great, interactive experience to have. I still couldn’t feel the breeze through his open window or smell the Mississippi River as we drove past it, but still, it was an awesome experience. I learned so much and it helped me tremendously with the setting of my story. Now I can sit down, write it and feel like I kne the place. That’s what you call armchair travelling and research in the year 2020.