Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Traveling the World Without Leaving Your Home

By Nick Daniels

I have a confession to make: I've never been to London.

"So what?" you may ask. The deal is that my first novel is set in London and I once heard a literary agent say that he would never represent a novel that was set in a place that the author hadn't actually visited. Well, I made a mental note then not to work with this agent.

And it's not as if I refused to travel to England to do some research--I just couldn't afford it at the time I wrote the book. And even if I could, my novel was set in pre-Victorian London, so apart from the historical buildings still in place, the world of my novel wasn't there any more.

What were my options then? Here are some things that helped me:
  • Read books and watch movies set in that time
  • Read descriptions of the places and even look at recent pictures on the Internet
  • Explore London maps from the 1830s and compare them with the current ones on Google maps
  • Make things up
  • Wish I had tried instead a contemporary novel set in my hometown
I was lucky to find one particular picture of The Strand, in front of Somerset House, of 1836 (the exact year and location of many of my scenes). Check it out:

Images like this one, film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels, Charles Dicken's vivid descriptions of the London of his day and practical guides like What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England and Voices From Dickens' London: First-Hand Accounts of Life in the Great Metropolitan allowed me to travel in time and place to the world of my story, making it so real in my head, that my readers won't know the truth until they read this post.

Writing international fiction may be a challenge, but the things I've learned, are worth the trip.

To my fellow writers, I ask, what about you? Have you visited all your settings or are you just mind-traveling like me?

And to my fellow readers, what places would you like to visit through a novel?

Nick Daniels' second novel is set in the Middle East, so he bought a large map and a travel guide with lots of pictures. Donations are welcome for his research trip to Israel.


  1. Good post, Nick. I admit that I've based all my stories on places I've visited - but often I've changed the names and exact location to give me more freedom.

  2. I think this is really interesting, and when you do the research properly no one knows whether you've been there or not. Also if you are the sort of person who has trouble with seeing 'layers' when you are in a place, and you are writing about time past, what's the point. Sometime you can visit London and then you'l know if there are things you would change but so what? Most readers want to escape, learn a little, be uplifted, entertained, yadda yadda, but they really don't care where the author went...and did HG Wells vist Mars??
    I reat my case!!!!

  3. Good luck with that donation thing:)
    I set my first historical in a made up town, based on a real town that I had visited. That combination really worked for me in getting the setting right.

  4. Nick, great post! For my next story, I've created a fictional town in a part of Australia I have visited. I've also set stories in Sydney, but I'm originally from Sydney which made it a lot easier.

  5. I have visited or lived in all my settings, but I can see that visiting 21st century London would not be much help for a historical novel. I love the picture of the Strand. It definitely stimulates the imagination for some lively scenes.

  6. I've been to most of the places I write about, except for the one about a spaceship journey and strange new planets :) which is all made up of course. I love to go to a place and pick up some whiff of its personality which I couldn't know without being there. Mostly this involves sounds and smells, things that research doesn't help so much with.

  7. For about 3 years in the 70s I worked between two offices, one at the top of The Strand where it meets Fleet Street and the other up a narrow street just off Fleet Street, in a building called Clifford's Inn. I regularly walked up and down The Strand to Charing Cross to catch my train back to 'suburbia'. So I knew the area very very well! But I doubt that much of what I know would be of any use were I to try to write an historical novel set in that area. Visiting London as a 'sight-seer' would be of even less use.

    When I read your book I won't be doing it to find faults with your setting, but to be taken away from the 'setting' I'm in right now, into adventure.