Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Walkabout Wednesday: Tips for Research Trips

It's Wednesday. Let's go walkabout.

(I'm bringing along a few of my mates as I wander through the vast wilderness of the publishing industry, learning the ins and outs, and having a grand adventure.)

Walkabout, Week 81:

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the lovely city of Portland, Oregon to do a bit of research for a manuscript I'm working on. The trip was absolutely lovely, and I accomplished a great deal. I'll recount some of the grander moments of my adventure in a future post--things like flying in to Oregon amidst a tsunami warning, wandering around Powell's Bookstore--a store so large they give you a map to navigate the place--surviving a crazy huge windstorm and sort of falling in love with the city while I was there.

This post, however, is all about:
Tips when Traveling for Research

1. Plan ahead
  • Know what you need to find out. Do enough thinking ahead of time about what you need for your manuscript, what you'd like to find out. Make a list! You'd hate to go all that way only to realize you forgot to do something essential.
  • Do your homework about the place you are visiting. Gather addresses, street maps, etc. so you know where you're headed. If you are visiting a business, a school, a museum, etc. know their hours, prices of admission, all the essentials.
  • Work out a schedule, but be flexible. Figure out which of your destinations are near each other and could possibly be visited on the same day. Decide how long you want to spend at each location. Determine which stops are the most crucial and make sure those are on the list. But know that you might be slowed down by weather or traffic or simply want to stay in one place longer than you'd anticipated.
2. For heaven's sake, document what you see and do
  • Bring something to record what you're doing--a voice recorder, a pen and paper--whatever works best for you. I wouldn't recommend lugging a laptop around while you're out and about, ave that for transferring notes at the end of the day in your hotel room. A camera is also a great idea, though bear in mind you don't need pictures of every single building you pass.
  • As much as we'd all like to think our memories are good, you won't be able to recall all your impressions weeks and months after the fact, so take good notes.

3. Focus on those things you can only do or experience in-person
  • Again, this is a matter of doing the legwork ahead of time. You can find maps and pictures of landmarks, etc. online or in books or travel guides. See if you can find this information elsewhere--this will save you time and money during your trip.
  • Spend time experiencing "the feel" of the places you visit. This is probably the single most valuable bit of information you will gather during your research travels. Guide books, videos, maps and postcards cannot offer the same insight into the aura of location.
  • Watch the people--How do they dress? How do they hold themselves? Do they interact with each other, or are they more isolated? Are they ethnically diverse or does one ethnicity noticeably dominate? Do they generally seem well-off or poor or middle class?
  • How does the city or town run--Public transit or bumper-to-bumper traffic? Huge parking lots or streets lined with parking meters? Is it chaotic or excessively organized? Shopping malls or street vendors?
  • Engage your senses! -- Colorful or monochromatic? Historic buildings or brand new? Are there unique smells? How's the weather? Lush green plant life or only a few trees here and there? Is it noisy or eerily quiet?
4. Think like a local
  • If your character lives in the city you are researching, seeing that city as a tourist would won't give you an authentic feel. See where the locals hang out, where they eat, what they do. You want to experience their town as they experience it.
  • Don't underestimate the value of a local showing you around! I was fortunate enough to have a native Portland-er (shout out to the wonderful Tony Meyer!) drive me around the city and answer my questions. He knew where everything was and how to get there. He answered every question I had without sugar coating it the way a tour guide or someone working for the visitor's bureau might have. I explained to him why I wanted to see different places, the type of scene it would be part of, and he actually suggested a couple other options. I ended up changing a location based on his recommendations and it has turned out to be a great thing for my book! If you have a local at your disposal--ask questions, get recommendations. [And take them to lunch or dinner while you're out, both as a thank you and as a way of sampling local cuisine. They could probably even recommend a great place to eat.] If you don't know anyone who lives there, ask before you go. Twitter is a fabulous place to get in touch with people from diverse locations and backgrounds. Pose questions there before you leave and see where their advice might take you.
5. Take time to enjoy the trip
  • I firmly believe that anytime a writer travels for research, they should leave the place just a little bit in love with it. Take time to simply enjoy yourself. If you are so rushed that you spend your entire trip under a cloud of stress, that will change your perception of the place and color your writing of it. Most people, despite the inevitable difficulties of life, feel a connection to the place where they live, loyalty and pride and, to differing degrees, a love for it. Give yourself the opportunity to simply sit back and discover what inspires them to feel that way.
  • While your writing research shouldn't be overly-touristy, don't forget to hit the sights for your own sake.
  • Have fun!

Don't forget to check out the newest episode of The Appendix: a podcast for writers!

1 comment:

Angie said...

Good advice. I wish I had done some that on trips I've taken. I didn't realize I'd want to use those locations in my books at the time. Glad you had a good trip.


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