Horse Before the Cart

Sarah Bowman

Sarah Bowman, attended workshops, writing groups, read & write constantly, novel-in-progress

The proper order of things, if you travel to research a book, is first to know what you want to write and where you want to set it. The quality of your writing is more important than your setting. Once you know what you want to write, once you know where you want to set your story and why—what specifically it is about this particular place that helps your story—make plans to visit the place.

Making plans is the operative term here. Before you go, more important to your book than having your Visa in order is learning all you can about the place. When you get there, you’ll be making all kinds of spontaneous detours of interesting and very important items that turn up unexpectedly. For this reason, you need to know months before you pack your bags:

  • about villages and out-of-the-way places you want to visit. To learn that requires in depth research, not only online but also in books at the library. Ask for help from the librarian. Explain your reason for the research so they can tailor their help to your best benefit. What kind of things do you need to know most about, e.g. fauna and flora for outdoor activities or cooking and food processing for a restaurant or the conditions behind the plight of an endangered animal species?
  • the questions you ask of locals. As you develop your story characters you will realize there are things your characters need to know that only a local person can tell you. Example: What is the local favourite radio/TV program? What do kids/adults do for fun? How do they obtain food/clothes/housing? Many of your questions will be answered online or in books at the library. Know which questions are not answered before you pack your bags. And then, when you are finally there, listen with rapt attention and great patience to the long drawn-out stories people tell you so that their way of speaking and being enters your subconscious mind. These little details will lend authenticity to your story.
  • language. If you don’t speak the language of your story characters you’re going to have to deal with that. I have no experience and can’t advise you but I’m sure someone can. Definitely have a handle on that before you go, especially if you have to learn a new language.
  • the information you look up in libraries and archives that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. After you have learned everything you can at home, you may realize that to make your story credible you need to know something of the village’s history. Your village will most likely be fictitious, but for the story to be credible you will want the description to be true-to-life. Researching archives of a similar village (if permissible) will be very helpful, or reading old newspapers if available. This information may be available only in the archives or libraries in the country of your destination.

Hopefully, with the help of a librarian you can contact someone in that country such as in a government office or university or library who is willing to provide access to archives. NOTE: I don’t know if this kind of privilege is ever extended to unpublished authors but if the country has public libraries and museums perhaps they will let your browse to get a sense of their intellectual and material culture. Visit historical monuments; learn their stories. You should be able to find out something of the rules re archive research before you leave home but be prepared for surprises.

I realize this is a lot more serious, a lot heavier, than you were looking for. But writing publishable material is a very competitive business and requires a great deal of seriously hard work, especially if you want to write about a place and people you don’t know about. You may decide to travel for pleasure and if a book comes out of it, fine. If not, at least you had your trip around the world, a lot of fun, and learned a lot into the bargain. That may be reward enough. And if you keep notes or a diary and photos there’s nothing to say you can’t still write your book ten or twenty years from now.

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