You don’t need to travel to the place you’re writing about, but it’s helpful to go if you can.
Sometimes traveling for research happens by accident, when you find a jewel you didn’t know you were looking for. That’s what happened to me when I was in Portland, Oregon and I found my way to Pittock Mansion. It is a mansion indeed, nestled in the West Hills 1000 feet above Portland with a panoramic view of the city. I’m starting a new novel that will combine a story idea I’ve been kicking around for years with inspiration from my new obsession—Downton Abbey (I know—I’m about three years late to the Downton Abbey party). When I was in Portland I saw something about Pittock Mansion and I knew I had to visit. That afternoon I found myself standing in an old house that echoes the grand English house in Downton, as much as a frontier American house can. I had assumed that Highclere Castle, brilliant in its role as Downton Abbey, was hundreds of years old, but, based on what I found on the website, the mansion has stood in its current incarnation only since 1878 when the interior modeling was completed. I say only since 1878 because, having visited Westminster Abbey in London, I now think everything in Britain is 1000 years old. That makes the current version of Highclere Castle 36 years older than Pittock Mansion, which was completed in 1914. And the two houses might as well be kissing cousins since they have so much in common.
Unlike Downton’s Lord Grantham, Henry Pittock was, first, an actual person, and second, a self-made man. He was English born, Pittock, arriving in America at 19 “barefoot and penniless” (his words). Eventually, he took over the local newspaper, The Oregonian, then the Weekly Oregonian, and in time built an empire while becoming a wealthy man. His house, Pittock Mansion, stands on 46 acres of land, and it’s complete with glorious gardens, a greenhouse, and a servants’ residence. I realized, as I stood in the house admiring the opulent furnishings, pondering antiquated appliances, walking upstairs to the family’s living area, then visiting downstairs to where the servants worked, that wandering around Pittock Mansion was more than a tourist activity. It was a chance to do some research, to stand in a grand house, to see the wide, winding staircase, to feel the sunlight (more like cloudlight than sunlight in Portland) in the open, airy rooms. I won’t be writing specifically about Pittock Mansion, but now I have a personal experience with a grand house that will help me when I sit down to describe one.
There are many articles out there on how to write about a place you’ve never been. Here’s a good one from The Creative Penn. I never used to think much of traveling for research, and for a long time I was content writing about places I had never been. I have an active imagination, as fiction writers do, and I felt that with photographs, maps, Google Earth, and some explanatory information I was able to visualize the place in my mind. Then, after I could see the place clearly, I could describe it in my story. I’ve written about southeastern Georgia, Nazareth, Jerusalem, New York City, and Salem, Massachusetts without setting foot in any of those places. Finally, when I was writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, I made the decision to visit Salem. I felt like I had used up whatever I learned about the town writing Her Dear & Loving Husband, and for Book Two in the series I needed more to say. That trip was eye opening for me. It showed me that there’s something to be said for standing in the places I’m going to be describing. You can read about my trip to Salem here.
In On Writing Well, in Chapter 13 “Writing About a Place,” William Zinsser says that “next to writing about people, you should know how to write about a place” (94). He’s talking about nonfiction writing here, but a lot of what he says applies to fiction too. Every story, whether it’s true or make-believe, happens somewhere, and it’s the writer’s job to make that somewhere come to life. Zinsser warns writers to avoid cliches when describing places, and it’s so easy to fall into that trap, using phrases we’ve heard before. Visiting the places I’m writing about helps me avoid those pesky cliches. That’s not to say I never use them (I’m guilty of using the word “quaint,” which Zinsser says is a no-no), but having stood in Salem along the seashore, having walked up a grand marble staircase in a century-old house, I know now how I feel being there. I notice details specific to the area that can’t be found in a brochure or spotted on Google Earth. I’m able to make my descriptions personal—descriptions that only could have come from me—because I was there, I saw it, I walked it, I heard it, I imagined it. I can read about the weather all I want, but experiencing it myself makes it easier for me to share what I know. I’ve learned that experience is language; in other words, experiencing something opens me up and allows me to find the language to express it. Specific street names, monuments, places of interest—those details can be found online. But standing there, seeing it for myself, taking pictures to remember what I saw when I get home, there’s nothing like it.
It’s not always possible to travel for research purposes, and many writers have successfully written about places they’ve never been. But I’ve learned that if you can go, go. The more you feel as though you’ve experienced what you’re going to be writing about, the easier it will be to share with your readers. I know my afternoon at Pittock Mansion will help me when I sit down to write my next novel. My trip to London earlier this year, and my trip back to the U.K. next year, will also help me bring my story to life. So now, whenever I can, I travel to the places I’m writing about. If nothing else, it’s an excuse to see the world.
By the way, Downton fans will love Pittock Mansion. If you’re going to be in the Portland area, check it out.