Reader, a confession that’s going to seem contradictory: I’m not much of a traveler.
In fact, until last year, it had been over a decade since I’d spent more than two nights in a row away from home. I’m a home bird; I like my home comforts; I don’t want to go anywhere I can’t take my dog; and anyway, I’m a writer. I don’t have to leave my chair to go to other places.
Of course, it would be writing that would get me travelling at all.
I love inventing entirely new places for my characters to live and breathe in, but I also love being able to look on Google Maps and find areas that are already so perfect to the story, I can occupy them with my imaginary friends–which is where travelling comes in. Technology is wonderful–I couldn’t be without it–but I just want to stand in the places my characters do. Live and breathe in that air. Look around and see them walking into pubs, disappearing behind corners, eating and drinking and laughing exactly where I am.
I’ve not long returned from a holiday that was meticulously planned to be a part-writing-research trip, and it’s got me thinking about all the writing research trips I’ve loved before.
Want to see some?
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England
Stonehenge is a mysterious ancient monument whose purpose is unknown; it might have been something to do with measuring the Solstice, it might have been a Neolithic calendar, it might have marked the moon’s movements. I visited it for two reasons: one, it’s vaguely witchy and had therefore always fascinated me; and two, I’d dreamed it up as the entrance to the magical world in a story I’m writing. That recreation sculpture looks perfectly set up to have an entrance pillar surrounded by other pillars that mark the elements; that divot in the hill could quite easily be because there’s something in that space that non-magical beings can’t see; and you can’t tell me that dent in the rock in the last photo doesn’t look like a person walking into the rocks themselves…
Oxford is a beautiful city, full of respectable old libraries and unique museums… And I want it for a buddy romcom about two friends making terrible, largely drunken, decisions. I visited the wonderfully weird libraries, I saw the Harry Potter walking tour, I oohed and ahhed over the flowers crawling up cottage walls… But I took photos of beautiful buildings my characters would drunkenly stumble past, and rooftop statues that flash passersby, and places my characters would misbehave in that to my delight, happened to have my character’s names. To each their own!
I’d researched Rhossili extensively, as a location for my angsty two-parter romance: it’s right on the edge of the country, with a moody clifftop that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of the world. I watched videos, I pored over street views on Maps, and I travelled an hour and a half out of our holiday journey to see it–and I’m so glad I did. Nothing could match, or could’ve prepared me for, the feeling of walking out to the very edge of the cliff and feeling butterflies in my stomach; from the views, and the heights, and the feeling of my characters standing in my shadow. (That’s me, walking out to the end of the world; you can’t see the lovers in my shadow, or the stars in my eyes, but I promise you, they’re there.)
What Maps hadn’t told me about Rhossili was that it’s not the place my characters could live. But I had to drive through Gower to get to Rhossili, and that was the place they’d live–I had The Feeling. So on our second holiday to Wales, I planned a detour around the whole of Gower–a senior school, the marshland, the moors, the woods; all the places my characters would live, learn, love, run from the world to be together–just to see if I’d been right. If I could recreate that tingle down my spine, that Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince quote: This is the place. It has known magic.