The manuscript I’m working on involves a few places I’ve never seen except on a TV screen — police stations, courtrooms, and jail cells. Until I started these characters’ stories, I tended to set my fiction in places I was familiar with: high school, parks, fantasy lands that bore striking resemblances to the cottage country and forests I visited with family or day camp each summer.
I did that with my current characters too: they’re grad students at the school where I did my own PhD, visit local arenas where I play hockey, and break into buildings I visit (legally!) weekly. But because their stories are meant to have Canada-wide repercussions, I forced myself out of my familiar-location comfort zone and included some more famous locales, such as Parliament Hill and the CN Tower.
Plus, as mentioned above, plot requirements meant I needed to send my characters to professional settings I’ve never visited. I’m writing urban fantasy, so I have some leeway (for example, there is no Toronto police division that handles made-up magic crimes, and I can imagine the squad in charge of that having its own building and special facilities), but I can’t completely change, say, the court system when doing so would conflict with the rest of my world-building.
So I went to visit a few places I needed to see. Some, like Parliament Hill, are open to the public and free. Others, like the CN Tower, are the former but definitely not the latter. And others, like police stations, are usually neither, but occasionally Toronto civic buildings are open to the public during “Doors Open Toronto” weekends, so I took advantage of that.
In case you were wondering, here is how NOT to visit places for writing research:
1. Do not take any notes.
Your memory is perfect, and you will not need to jog it, ever. You will know this because you will be concentrating your hardest on everything you see and hear and feel, and it’s impossible to forget things when you’re concentrating on them. You have never forgotten anything important since the day you were born.
2. Do not take any photos.
This is particularly important, even if you forget rule #1 above. You may have wasted your time writing down impressions, and we might live in an age where almost everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times, but you are a wordsmith! You deal in language, not petty images.
Under no circumstances should you take a photo, despite the fact that you probably have the technological capacity to take and store several images each second. You will never want to remember how things look or the specific pattern you saw on the wallpaper; you are content to juggle particular details in your mind’s eye from now until you are able to write the scene.
You definitely do not want your pictures and videos to automatically upload to the cloud so you can browse them at your leisure, no matter how fast you feel pressured to pass through and exit the space. If your tour group walks fast, you will just have to deal with it. Sherlock Cumberbatch has a memory palace — why can’t you?
3. If you ask people questions, do not remember to indicate that you write fiction.
It is very important to blurt awkward/potentially suspicious questions like, “So what would you do if someone died up here?” without offering any context whatsoever. The sorts of people who can answer these questions, such as police officers and security guards, might spoil the whole project if they answer in an unnatural manner. In order to prevent accidentally cuing them, you must make sure never to clarify that nothing you’re talking about is real.
Remember, awkwardness/background checks last only a minute, but realism is forever.
4. Do not remember that “story” can mean either fiction or a non-fiction blog/news article.
If you decide to ignore Rule #3, you should blithely refer to the “story” you are writing without clarifying that you mean a work of fiction, not a sensationalist magazine article that will throw the PR department of the institution you are visiting in a whirlwind of crisis response.
Otherwise, how will you have a long conversation with an employee where you keep asking “but I’m asking what if someone got stuck here after hours? Would they be able to use a bathroom?” and, failing to understand you mean “after breaking in using magic,” they insist that such a thing is impossible while looking increasingly uncomfortable.
5. Be very embarrassed all the time about taking other people’s attention.
Who do you think you are, William Shakespeare? Obviously not, because Shakespeare never went on research trips. He made up whatever he wanted about antiquity and history and other countries. Do you think you’re better than Shakespeare?
The job of people who are giving tours and answering questions about the places in which they work is definitely not to answer questions about the places in which they work. And they definitely wouldn’t simply refuse to answer a question they aren’t allowed to talk about. You should remember that asking them anything is a huge imposition. This is probably why Shakespeare never did it.
6. Do not look up anything online before you go.
Although floor plans, general information, and personal accounts and photos are all available through Google search, you should not look at any of them. You can probably learn everything once you get there (maybe by osmosis, since you’re not going to ask anyone, see above). Besides, the Internet is so impersonal. And so ten-seconds-away from visiting Twitter all the time.
You don’t need to get your money’s/time’s worth from your in-person visit. You just need to go so you can tick off this box on your to-do list and feel like a responsible writer.
7. Do not write a draft of the scene before you go.
Before you go to the place you are researching, how will you be able to write the scene? Your imagination? Pffft, how is a writer supposed to use that?
Besides, if you write the scene before your visit, you’ll have a better idea of what beats you need to stage and what practical details might be useful. You’ll be able to consider concrete changes. And if the physical reality of the location/process/etc. really upends your draft of the scene, you’ll at least have an idea of the pacing you want and the emotional throughline you’re looking for.
If your gut says, “Awww, this scene is so hard though. Why not use research as an excuse to put it off for now, even though I know I can write it?” you should definitely listen, because purposely confusing importance with urgency in order to avoid writing in favour of non-writing work is a skill every writer needs to cultivate if they wanna go pro.
8. Do not take pictures of/notes on things that aren’t necessary for your current draft.
If you do already have an idea of the scene in mind, you should laser-focus on cramming that scene as-is into the place you are researching. Do not for a moment allow your surroundings to suggest new, exciting ways to develop your story. Whatever you already decided is etched in stone.
For that reason, if you must ignore the above excellent advice and record your experience, restrict yourself to the points you currently consider to be key. Your future self will not decide to move the location of some action from one area to another in order to better meet the logistical requirements of the plot; there is no way you will curse your lack of foresight in getting a dozen images of one floor tile pattern when your scene is now set entirely in one of the carpeted rooms.
Similarly, you should note only the most obviously striking aspects of your location. Your characters will never have to open a door, walk down one of the halls, use the bathroom, etc. And all those common features are exactly the same everywhere. You would never be able to enhance the realism of the scene by including a tiny detail specific to your researched location like the scent of the hand soap or which doors squeak when they open.
9. Include all the details you noticed in your finished written scene.
There is no reason for you to have done all this work if you’re not going to include everything you noticed in the scene you wrote. What if your reader devours the scene where your protagonists escape their holding cell in the local police station but finishes the book without knowing that you also know what the police lunch room looks like and what appliances are available for officers’ use?
Answer: all the time you spent researching was completely wasted.