Being There

How important is it for a writer to spend time in the place where his or her novel is set? Obviously, if you’re writing a historical novel, you can’t go back in time. And some locations are difficult or impossible to access—the South Pole, the Amazon rainforest, Timbuktu. Before writing A Gentleman in Moscow, author Amor Towles had made only a brief visit to the Metropole Hotel, and he didn’t return until the novel was almost two-thirds complete.

Two years ago my husband and I spent an afternoon in the Metropole’s Shalyapin Bar, sipping wine and nibbling on bread and pickles. Outside the hotel, to the right, was the home of the Bolshoi Theater, just as Towles had said it would be. But the bar looked nothing like the one Towles described in the novel. Nor did the Boyarsky Restaurant, now called called No. 4.

A Gentleman in Moscow is so good that Towles’ readers can forgive him for dreaming up most of the hotel. I’m not sure readers would forgive me for setting my novels in the UK and then describing the setting as if it were somewhere in the Midwest. At a recent book club event, one reader said, “Reading A Dream of Death brought back so many memories of Scotland, I almost felt as if I was there again.” I loved the compliment.

My favorite tool for researching a novel set in a foreign location is actually being there. Certain things only locals will know, like where solicitors eat lunch in Bury St. Edmunds and how often the bell ringers practice in Chipping Norton. No amount of research can tell you how blackberry brambles smell in autumn or how the water ripples when nearing the locks on the River Stour. No stock photograph, helpful as it may be, can convey the glint of the sun on a thousand panes of Elizabethan glass, turning them into a patchwork quilt of light and shadow. Being there on location, absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells, has no substitute.

But what about a historical novel? Since time travel hasn’t yet been perfected, the best answer is still being there. In the British Isles, the past is everywhere. I’ve eaten in pubs that served meals to travelers before Columbus discovered America. I’ve slept in inns that sheltered pilgrims headed for Canterbury. Once, to locate a certain house, I followed a map from the early 1800s. The M-3 wasn’t there in the 1800s, of course, but the narrow lane known as Sheep Street still snaked toward the market town. And the stone bridge that witnessed soldiers marching off in 1775 to put down the pesky little uprising in the colonies still spanned the River Deben. And on the opposite bank, in a copse of trees planted in the reign of King William IV, was the house I sought. Still lived in. Still lovely.

Have you ever visited a location mentioned in a novel? How well did the author convey the atmosphere of the place? If you could write a novel set anywhere in the world, where would it be?

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