This week I want to look at a technique I’ve begun to use which has really enhanced my writing. One of the areas I struggled with the most as a beginning writer was descriptions. I came from a screenwriting background. I just wasn’t use to going into so much visceral detail, and I struggled to build a vocabulary that seemed authentic to my voice in writing them. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about and examining how to write visceral passages better.
When I started the John Simon Thrillers, I set it in 2029 Kansas City. And I decided to use as many authentic locations as I could for the story to lend it a sense of authenticity and to entertain local readers both. But I figured if I was going to write those locations, I needed to know what they were really like, so I began taking road trips to scout locations, much like they do for films and television. I took pictures, made voice memos, and even wrote a few sample passages describing what I saw, what I smelled, tasted, heard, and so on. This really leant my John Simon novels a nuance that readers seemed to enjoy so I have employed it as much as I can since (COVID period being excepted).
And there are a number of tools besides a map or GPS and my car that have added to my ability to find and scout these locations and write them well I thought I would share with you.
First, Google maps is fantastic because it not only has the geographic (default) mode but a satellite mode that shows actual pictures of places, and in some you can even do street view and view the area in 3D. This, of course, enables you to write descriptions in as much detail as you desire but also to pick out any unique features you want to examine more closely on your scout. Oh yes, you should still scout, because Google maps is only updated so often and it can’t capture the sounds, taste, smell, and so on of the actual place—things that your characters can recall as standing out most to make the descriptions jump off the page.
Second, do you have local film commission or a state one? And do they have a locations database? In Kansas City, the database is fantastic—filled with pictures and addresses of all kinds of locations, many of which I was unaware of and can use in my stories. You can find that here.
Third, good notebook or digital recorder is essential. For one scout, I had a longtime resident drive around with me for a couple hours and tell me all about the city, leading me to various locations that had historical importance or other significance for him and describing his memories. This was also a great way to discover cool locations to use in my stories, many of which I would have overlooked or not been made aware of easily on my own. I also use the recorder/notebook to record my own impressions in person at each location I scout, so I get a fresh bird’s eye perspective of what it’s like to experience them first hand and what really stands out.
Fourth, I recommend checking out the Images of America series of local books to see if there are any on your area. Several cover Kansas City in various detail, including one about the history of all the neighborhoods that really adds fun details you can drop into your story to add depth and nuance. These books are available at any bookstore, especially big chains in large numbers in the travel section but also via Amazon and so on.
Fifth, visit local museums and ask to talk to a curator or historian. Tell them what you are doing and ask if they have any insights or suggestions. You will be surprised what you come up with. And may even find a new friend or source willing to be available as a resource for answering questions and so on.
Sixth, talk to friends and family who live in the area or nearby and ask them what the interesting features are and what stands out in their memories. This is a great way to pick up little real descriptions that sound like people talk which you can drop into your stories.
In the end, putting in this effort will not only enhance your Setting choices themselves but the Descriptions you write about them, making them seem far more authentic than you could have managed using just your imagination or long term memory. For local readers, who can be annoyed by writers who just guess and get little details wrong, it will earn you respect. For nonlocal readers who may decide to go visit favorite locations from your stories, it will do the same when they experience the very same sensations you describe in your books upon their own visits. More than that, you can write with a confidence and surety that you “got it right” on a whole new level that will strengthen everything you write for that project.
That’s how I use location scouting to enhance my writing. What unique techniques do you use? I’d love to hear your ideas in comments. For what it’s worth.
I love to travel and I love to learn. So, to me, one of the greatest things about trips is getting to discover things: new places, new languages, new cultures, new people, new points of view. It energizes me. That’s one reason I’ve dedicated so much of my life to travel. From 2000 through 2010, I visited Africa, South America, Central America and Europe, some more than once the same year, donating time as a teacher and mentor in exchange for learning and discovering. I learned as much as any of my students did, and it’s forever changed my life and writing.
This may seem an odd subject for writetips, but hang on. When I was first starting out, I got accused of cliche and predictable writing and one agent said “live more so you’ll have stuff to write about.” So, I quit Hollywood and went off to be a singer and travelled the world. I got a Masters degree, founded a leadership development training non-profit, and spent the next decade travelling three times a year to learn cultures and help them learn the arts, etc. in places where such training is either unaffordable or available only to the elite. I and my world are so much broader because of that, and I have so much more to write about.
So here’s my Top 10 Most Inspiring Places I’ve Visited (so far–I’m not done by far):
1) Ghana, West Africa — From the urban sprawl of Accra, its capital, to the slave castles of its Atlantic Coast, to the humble traditional village of Mesamegor where I spent a blissful New Year’s Day 2004 learning about traditional dance and village life, my four trips to Ghana have been some of the most enriching of my life. I miss it daily and long to go back. For those of us fortunate enough to be born in the First World, a visit to the Third or Developing World is life changing, if you allow it to be. From the ways they view the world differently, to the joys they find amidst such poverty and want, you realize not only how lucky you are but how much you have and how little you appreciate it. It’s reminds you that there are things far more important than possessions, status, money, etc., and it teaches you how to slow down and live by relying on each other and making the most of every moment in ways that forever transform the way you see the world.
2) Dacchau and Bavaria, Germany — A line of bullet holes along a wall, an ashy oven with a distinct smell, barracks with bunks resembling those on slave ships of Roots from TV at a famed WWII concentration camp built for killing, and all of this because of a race/religion and one man’s call to hate. I went there at 16 and images are indelibly burned into my brain. I don’t have scanned pictures but I can call them up whenever I want to in my mind. You can’t deny it when you’ve seen the evidence for yourself. I also floated over the Alps on glider, a plane shot up into the air by bungee with no engine. It was so quiet, peaceful and amazing. I felt like a bird.
3) The Favellas (slums) of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil —In both Rio and Belo Horizonte, the third largest city to the north, I visited famed hillside slums, places where the murder count
each month exceeds that of the whole U.S. in a year at times. These were the people who would rob tourists, ran the drug trade, and acted as maids, servants, bus drivers, etc. Their lives were hard and lacking, yet when you were invited in as a guest, no one treated you better. I never once felt any sense of danger or worry. And it was humbling to be so appreciated by people who have such hardships that I can’t even begin to understand. You can read about poverty and violent lives, but only by seeing it for yourselves can you begin to try and understand.
4) Venice Beach, California — In many ways, the quintessential California beach, at least as far as Los Angeles goes. From surfers to street performers (some of whom make 50k tax free or more year) to beach volleyball, rollerblading, and lots of hot, fleshy bodies, not to mention sunsets and even whales and ships, Venice Beach has it all and it’s an experience to be remembered. I went several times during my time in L.A. I’ll never forget the 300 lb woman in the thong (I wish I could) but I’ll also never forget the night I went there after a day spent skiing in the nearby mountains and sat in shorts to watch the sunset over the mountains to the north. Whenever I think of California life, it comes back to me so clearly.
5) The Florida Keys —I wish I could afford to live there, because the Florida Keys remain one of my all time favorite vacation spots. From standing in Hemingway’s home to lighthouses, jetskiing, petting sharks and whales, collecting sea shells, waterskiing, and glass bottom boats, I just love what Southern Florida and especially the Keys have to offer. I move from relaxed to excited in waves and go home exhausted but yet the next day I’m ready to do it all again.
6) The Gold Cities of Minas Gerais, Brazil —Brazil is huge and rich and walking through these cities with their hundreds of churches, often slave built, with elaborate interiors, exteriors, and gold embossed finishes, amazing Portuguese style Colonial buildings and streets, etc., felt like stepping back in time and into history. I’ve visited them three times and still find myself in awe and discovery every time. From the old mine you can ride down into on an old fashioned car system, to panning for gold, to horseback rides, to mountain scenery, to amazing cuisine, to the museums (including an amazing mineral museum with specimens from all over the world), Minas’ gold cities truly are wonders of the world.
7) Amish Ohio, Iowa and Pennsylvania —They may thrive on simplicity of life, but there’s something truly inspiring about people so devoted to their beliefs that they’re willing to ignore the obvious benefits of so many technologies and possessions in order to cling to a way of life. Some look at them as odd annoyances, but, to me, they’re fascinating and an example of the kind of integrity and discipline many of us can and should learn from. In a world of backstabbing, mind games, and soundbyte thinking, these people preserve a lifestyle they’ve cherished for hundreds of years undisturbed by our distractions, stresses, etc. Their Ohio and Pennsylvania neighbors have told me of their kindness and of admiration for them. And from my few encounters, I can say, the admiration and respect is well deserved.
8 ) The Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights Museum — Sit on a bus and hear the white driver berate you and send you to the back; witness the church where two young girls died at the hands of bombers in the name of hate; this amazing, fantastic museum chronicles the history of Civil Rights in the U.S. powerfully and provocatively and my visit there has remained one of the most powerful museum experiences of a lifetime full of them. Between the hands on recreated experiences there and my own times standing in slave dungeons on Africa’s Gold Coast, amongst others, my understandings and views of tolerance, commonality, and the dignity and value of humans and human lives are forever informed and reformed by such amazing experiences.
9) The New Mexico Museum of Space History and International Space Hall Of Fame, Alamogordo, New Mexico —This museum in this small New Mexico city was something I’d driven by several times and thought meh. But just before relocating, I went there with my parents. Want to try and land a space shuttle? Try the simulator here. It’s incredibly hard (my dad and I each crashed, although I almost made it). Space suits, launch sounds, equipment, meals, and photos of key figures in space exploration history plus real ships on display, including a simulated Gemini capsule so you can see if you’d fit. Truly amazing! And they’ve got an Imax theatre and planetarium as well. Well worth a trip. The emergency shuttle landing zone which was used once or twice is also here along with the amazing White Sands missle range and original ground zero from the first nuclear bomb test, and white sand dunes where you can sled in boiling summer heat. From SF writers like Asimov to scientists, the hall of fame alone inspired my imagination and encouraged my dreaming.
10) The Colorado Rockies —Majestic, mighty, beautiful: there’s nothing and no place quite like them. I loved the Alps, especially the Matterhorn, but from a young age, the Rockies captured my heart, reinforced my belief in a higher power, and reminded me that when God paints, it out shines anything man can do or imagine. The breeze off the mountains tingles my skin like the breath of heaven blowing down. It’s a spiritual experience for me and my own love of and passion for the Rocky Mountains is part of what bonded me with John Denver and his music so much and still does.
Well, in no particular order, those of 10 places which have inspired me greatly in my life and creative work. As we all know, inspiration and experience are key to good writing. So what’s the writetip for this week? It’s to live a little, explore, discover, and learn whenever and wherever you can. Your readers will thank you for it. Your editors, too. But no one will be enriched by it more than yourself. Where have you gone or always wanted to that inspires you and why? I’d love to compare notes in comments. And Friday, I’ll be guest posting on my blog tour about how my world travels have informed my world view and influenced my writing. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.