I've read some form of this comment dozens of times, from a variety of authors, expert advice givers, etc. "The best way to research a book is to go to the places you're writing about."
That's all well and good, if you are writing about your hometown, or state. But what about someone who lives in New York and is writing about Montana? Or a story set in a foreign country? I don't know many aspiring authors who have an unlimited travel budget. Do you? Exactly. So, this sage advice can feel like a slap in the face, right? Absolutely. But, all you need to do is get a bit creative. It is, after all, your forte.
As an example, I am writing a YA pirate tale set in the Caribbean during the 1730's. The story begins in Cuba and my chances of going there are pretty slim. (Pesky U.S. embargo and all.) And, unless Michio Kaku or Stephen Hawking really can figure out how to break the barrier in the time-space continuum to make time travel possible, I'm in trouble.
Or am I?
True, I can’t afford to visit the Caribbean, though I’d love the chance. And I can’t travel back to the 18th century. Well, that point is debatable. I happen to be lucky enough to live in Washington State, just a couple of hours from the home port of The Lady Washington. (Many of you may know the ship as The Interceptor from The Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl.) The ship is a replica of a tall ship that would have sailed the seas around 1790.
I was able to take a three hour sail aboard The Lady Washington on July 1st. I went with notebook and camera in hand. Watching the crew work together gave me a real taste of what life on a tall ship would have been like. The amount of rigging was mind-boggling, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it might have looked like during a storm. I felt transported back in time. I was inspired.
But, wait – you may be thinking – I don’t have *fill in the blank* near where I live. What am I supposed to do to research my novel? That’s where thinking outside the box will be your best weapon. Sure reading books on the subject/area/technology/whatever is a good place to start. But ask yourself what other resources may be available to you. If you’re setting your story in a place you’re unfamiliar with, do you know someone who has been there? Are you writing about futuristic technology? What about talking to a techie friend who is an authority on gadgets? Try a visit to a local museum/zoo/arboretum with an eye toward observation of flora and fauna. (You don’t have to be writing about tigers, but the movements of the big cats can be borrowed for a creature of your own imagining.)
As you already know, the internet is a great source of information – and videos. Never been to Rome? Don’t know anyone who has either? I went to YouTube and typed in “Rome vacation” and got 4,810 hits. Seeing the sights virtually will give you an idea of the atmosphere, which will lend your descriptions authenticity.
So, if you can’t visit the places you’re writing about in person, find other creative ways of “going” there. Be imaginative and enjoy the research process.