Although the internet provides myriad opportunities to virtually visit sites around the world, I still find nothing helps me understand a setting better than walking through it. Whenever you can walk your settings.
In June, my husband, kids, and I explored the coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, the third oldest community in the state. We’d been to the town many times before, but we’d never stopped in its cemetery. It’s so old that instead of being called a cemetery, it’s the Old Burying Ground. With the sky turning black as a storm approached, we ventured into the dim graveyard, the thick tangle of live oak branches pressing in around us, adding a ton of atmosphere.
No pictures or virtual tour could replicate what we experienced that day.
Five Benefits of Walking Your Setting
- Walking slows me down. Even if I’m looking for a setting for a car chase, I still want to walk it. Walking helps me sees details I wouldn’t notice if I drove by or looked at photos. It also slows down my brain, allowing me to appreciate my surroundings.
- Walking allows me to use all five senses. The photos above a can’t convey the hush of the cemetery, which contrasted with the strengthening winds, or the crackle of dead leaves underfoot, or the smooth surface of the marble headstones.
- Walking allows me to absorb the atmosphere. That probably sounds artsy, but I think creative people know what I mean. Most locations give you a certain feeling. A doctor’s office might give me an uneasy feeling, and I can’t figure out why until I realize it has some similarity to an office where I had an unpleasant experience. It helps my writing if I give my setting a mood as well as a physical description. Experiencing the atmosphere of places in reality enormously aids my ability to create moods for my settings.
- Walking gives me confidence when writing. Because I’ve actually visited the places I’m writing about, I can write with confidence. If someone thinks it’s unbelievable that a character can’t get cell reception to call for help in an Ohio state park, I know he’s mistaken because because I’ve been to Ohio state parks that don’t have reception.
- Walking is cheap. If it’s difficult for you to travel for research, walking settings where you live or ones you visit regularly saves you both time and money. When I had to find a town outside of Ohio in which my main character Rae finished high school, I picked the coast of North Carolina because we have vacationed there.
If you write science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction, try to find some equivalent in the current, real world. If your space opera occurs on a desert planet, arrange a visit to a desert. If your historical romance takes place in Victorian London, and you live nowhere close to Great Britain, find a city that still has Victorian architecture. Or a living museum where guides dress and act like people from the period. If the princess-in-disguise from your fantasy hides out in a stable, volunteer to work in one.
For more tips on writing about settings, click here.
Do you walk your settings? How has walking inspired your writing?
Excellent points. I’ll add one more that’s sort of related. Studies show that walking improves one’s creative thinking. Many of our great writers were also great walkers. Dickens was known for it, and his London settings came alive for it.
I didn’t know that about Dickens. I think walking, if you don’t have to dodge too many pedestrians and traffic, slows you down so you can focus.
I love the photos, and alongside your excellent points, I’ll add another (which probably ties in with all of them): Walking implants the place in your mind. When I walked on the trail, even though I wasn’t doing it for writing, I “picked up” in my mind, the way the sun shone on the creek and made the water glimmer, how the moss grew on the ground or rocks, etc. I still remember that. And yes–there probably are places on the trail where cellphones just don’t work.
Thanks very much for this post.
What a great observation! Thanks for sharing it.
Such good points.
Hope they help!