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.