How to Describe a Location You’ve Never Visited

One of the big decisions writers make is whether to choose a real location for the backdrop of their overall story or create one of their own imaginings. Crafting a world from scratch can be a lot of work (requiring a deep understanding of society, infrastructure, rules, governmental influence, and much more). But this avoids a problem associated with real-world locations: reader bias (when the reader’s own emotional ties to a real place influences their reading experience).

Imagine your character is living in an area that the reader grew up in. Even if you carefully researched the setting, maybe visited it yourself, the reality is that people and places will change over time. Stores close, schools are torn down, and social dynamics change, making safe neighborhoods unsafe or vice-versa. Landmarks might change and beloved sports teams move on. When readers discover you’re writing about a place they used to know, initially they’re excited. But if the details of your story don’t match what they remember, it causes a ripple in their experience, and they may lose faith in your storytelling ability.

Reader bias can be an issue If you get too granular in details likely to shift over time, but there are also many good reasons to place your story in the real world. Readers can slip into the action easier when they understand it takes place in Chicago or Amsterdam because they recognize these areas and can fill in blanks as far as how “big picture” society works. Reading about familiar places also helps your audience feel connected to the story’s cast because of shared life experiences and naturally occurring common ground.

So, let’s say you decide to set your book in a real place. This means a road trip is in order, right? Well, maybe. Is it close enough to travel to? Do you have the budget for it? If so, go for it (when it’s safe to do so, of course). There’s nothing better than getting first-hand sensory detail. In fact when Becca and I created the Urban and Rural Setting Thesaurus books we visited most locations in person. But, Like now, travel isn’t always in the cards (or the wallet) so sometimes we need a work-around: research.

3 Basic Real-World “Biggies” To Nail Down For Any Location

Climate and Seasons: As we all know, any location looks different season to season. Climate influences everything–the flora and fauna, what people wear, the types of buildings, you name it. Understanding the temperature, humidity (if it’s a factor) and local weather conditions are important so you can nail those descriptive details that will make a reader feel part of a scene.

Topography: The type of landforms tied to your location are also a big part of the story. Whether you’re in a populated area or not, knowing natural components (trees, rivers, plants, flowers, etc.) and manmade elements (buildings, infrastructure, etc.) will create realism. And by better understanding the landscape you can zero in on features and dangers that can help you turn your scene’s setting into an obstacle course, generating realistic conflict that will block your protagonist from their goal.

Social Issues, Language, and Culture: The people who live in a real-world location influence the shape and structure of it (colors, styles, government, local events, food, entertainment, modes of travel, art, music, etc.). Slang, customs, gender roles, religion, and dress will likely be unique to this area.

For example, at the height of summer, you might be tempted to have your characters slip on flip-flops on their way out the door. But if they live in a rugged mountain town known for hiking and other forms of recreation and active living, light hiking shoes or treaded sandals might be their go-to. It’s a small detail, but one that can cause you to trip as an author because local readers would know better. Writing about real-world locations means never skimping on the research or making blanket assumptions, or a resulting logic goof might pull readers out of the story.

Angela’s Favorite Setting Research Bookmarks

We know what information to dig for, so now it’s about doing it. Here are some of my favorite sources for setting detail.

You Tube: Some settings Becca and I couldn’t see firsthand, either because they were too dangerous, off limits (AKA trespassing), or too far away. You tube was invaluable. If you have a specific place in mind, run a search and pair it with “tour” or “walkthrough.” Often, you’ll find just what you need, straight from a local’s perspective.

Wiki Travel: They say there’s a Wikipedia for everything, and “they” might be right. Run a search for a location here and you’ll pull up all sorts of interesting local data: how to get around, things to do in the area, typical food and drink, climate, history, neighborhoods of interest…check it out!

Pinterest: Is there anything Pinterest can’t do? I don’t think so! Type in your location and see what pops up. Even better if you can pair it with an activity that ties into your book. For example, I typed in “Ohio Camping” and all kinds of detail gold came up.

National Centers For Environmental Information: This site is great for accessing the weather and temperature for different areas and is especially helpful for US locations.

National Geographic Interactive Maps: You can find a lot of statistical information about different parts of the world from this site—give it a whirl!

Google Earth: Street view can show you a lot of extras that help fill in the blanks when it comes to a particular setting.

The World Culture Encyclopedia: A big stumbling block can be understanding the culture and customs of a specific group of people. This site is a lifesaver. Also, try this one as well.

The Setting Thesaurus: Becca and I investigated 225 different setting locations and gathered the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures associated with each so you know what your character may encounter and use our sensory detail to bring readers deeper into your story.

Ancient Ruins, a Police Car, a House Party, an Antiques Shop…the detail for these and other locations will give you a big head start on painting a vivid canvas for your audience.

FYI, this thesaurus is also at One Stop For Writers, and has been expanded to include many other settings.

Feel free to check it out using our 2-week free trial.

Before you go…

This is a tough time for many, and some are reaching their limits when it comes to coping with it all. Cheryl Rainfield has some terrific ideas if you are feeling overwhelmed. Making space to acknowledge this is difficult and not feeling guilt over what you are or aren’t doing is important. We all process hardship and emotional turmoil in different ways.

I have been throwing myself into work because I find for me, setting goals is really helpful. Even if I can’t write, I find other goals that will motivate me. Yesterday though, I felt out of balance and so I took time out for myself. I went for a walk, sat in the sun, and baked pies for people I care about. Later I delivered them to their doorsteps, and it was nice to be able to let loved ones know I am thinking about them even though we can’t get together just now.

So please, don’t be afraid to make time for yourself. I know many of you have busy homes, or it’s the opposite and you’re feeling isolated. Either way, Cheryl has some great ideas, so stop by if you need to prioritize self-care right now. #ShieldYourMentalHealth

~Angela

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in About Us, Conflict, Mood and Atmosphere, One Stop For Writers, Setting, Setting Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, worldbuilding, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to How to Describe a Location You’ve Never Visited

  1. Vivienne says:

    Thanks for that. And the books look amazing. The list of goto sites is most helpful.

  2. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 04-30-2020 | The Author Chronicles

  3. I am very familiar with this feeling, in fact, when I go back to my hometown, I find a lot of things have changed from one year to the next, and when I describe what it used to be there in the same place of a new thing people look at me strangely. In one of my books, I could only describe what I remembered of the place.

  4. Bob says:

    I wrote about Palenque in my novel, 2012 Timeline Apocalypse. I’d been through the Panama Canal so I had some ideas of the jungle. I used the internet and local library for resources. A fan sent me a picture of him and his family at the ruins. He said he could see my book coming to life as he walked the ruins – I’d described it so well. Research is imperative. I was deep into a novel when I read: Her heels clicked on the linoleum of the DC Union Station as she headed for the main doors. I worked across the street from it. It has stone (marble?) floors. SNAP! I was out of story.

  5. Grant Ferguson says:

    I appreciate the care you put into each post. Thank you for all that you do and your generosity!

  6. Toni Idowu says:

    Love your site and your informative blogs. I can say this is my favorite writing site. You offer so much. Thank you.

  7. cally says:

    Thank you for this post. It came at a time where I needed help to describe a location. Your thoughtful comments helped me. Kind regards Cally

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