where the writers are
The Writer's Research Trip
Tires in Elko

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.


Here are a few photos, annotated (if you look at them individually, not as slide show), from that trip.

6 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

And don't forget

to deduct it all!  Research trips help you with the IRS.

My favorite research trip usually involves google and friends with interesting jobs.  When I am lucky, trip.  I manage usually to put into setting the places I travel to, so, yes, deduction!


Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

Comment Bubble Tip

Yay for research travel deductions

And yay for my accountant who helps me deal with them all. Come March, I'm all about the deductions...

Comment Bubble Tip

I think I need to set my

I think I need to set my next novel in Greece. :-)

Comment Bubble Tip

Perhaps Madagascar for me....

... though I'd prefer Southwest France or Thailand.

Comment Bubble Tip


...is the word for me, too, Susan! Who knew long nights in smoky tavernas could all be deductible?

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

Comment Bubble Tip

Remember Karl May!

This article reminds me of the story of Karl May, the German adventure-story writer from the late nineteenth century.  He wrote stirring adventures set in the American West, Mexico, and the Orient, and was extremely popular... at least, until it was discovered that he had never been to any of these places.  This resulted in a loss of credibility that he never quite recovered from. 

 On the one hand, the important thing is the story, not the facts.  The readers expect certain things, and if the readers want there to be Saguro cacti near Elko, then dangit, they should be in the story.  (This is the "James Frey" school of thought.)  On the other hand, verisimilitude is important in conveying a sense of place, and allowing the reader to suspend disbelief.  Sometimes the story just can't come together without the in-person research.

It is but one of several tightropes the author must walk.  JRR Tolkien never visited Middle-Earth, of course, but he was able to write about it convincingly simply by drawing from his own experiences, and his fans loved him for it.  James Frey, however, was excorciated on national television for making up his own version of events.  Every author must make a careful decision as to how far down that rabbit hole he or she wants to go.