How can you know what it smells like inside a Nevada brothel? Whether the coffee is bottomless at Stockmen's casino restaurant? What the sun looks like coming up over the Ruby Mountains?
How can you know what "quality of friendly" the people of the town show strangers? Is it that hyperactive "lets-show-you-how-friendly-our-town-is" friendly? It's hard to capture that emotion on paper unless you've seen the wide smiles that show too much teeth, unless you've felt the sensation your lizard brain registers as Fear! Threat! Be alert!
When you're writing a story, sometimes you just have to go see a place for yourself.
In my novel The Oaklanders -- ("...a timely, compulsive read..." -- Gayle Brandeis says; now looking for kick-ass literary representation, email me!) -- my character Amber grew up in Elko, Nevada. Since one of the book's themes is the culture clash within America, I wanted to know where Amber came from, what community had helped formed her.
A number of scenes take place in Elko. In the first draft of the book, I made it all up. I relied heavily on Google Earth, the Elko Chamber of Commerce website, and The Nevada Brothal Times. Yet, I wasn't convinced I'd captured the place. I had to see for myself.
Last fall, I drove 500 miles from Oakland, California to Elko, Nevada, spent a couple of days experiencing the town, gambling in seedy casinos, trying to get into the brothels, and interviewing cowboys and buckaroos. Then I drove back again -- 500 miles -- all for the sake of my novel.
The four day trip enhanced and corrected my descriptions. As it turns out, there's no seguro cactus and white sand in that part of the desert and the landscape is ever-changing, spacious, and beautiful, not "flat and desolate" as I'd first described it.
The trip gave me many wonderful surprises, and opened new opportunities for scenes. Without going, how could I possibly know that there's a weedy lot occupied by a taco truck and a jet-black mobile tattoo parlor with "Experience the pain!" painted in flame red on the side?
The trip transformed my understanding of my character Amber, and gave me new empathy for her. Once I knew where she was from, who she might have hung out with, and who might have teased her at school, where she might look for work, and what her mother's house looked like, she plumped into life.
Of course, you can do research on place without going there. Sometimes that's all you have, that, plus your imagination. You can get pretty close to accurate, and sometimes that's all you need.
But if you can, if you possibly can, go on a research field trip. Take notes, take photos, open your eyes. There's no substitute for reality.