23 July 2021
Top tips from thriller writer and former foreign correspondent Dan Fesperman so you can hit the ground running
As a former foreign correspondent, I was once a practitioner of 'parachute journalism' – so-called because you're expected to drop from the sky into an unfamiliar place, often on short notice, and immediately begin filing news reports as confidently as if you'd been working there for ages.
The journalistic hazards of this are obvious, but those rush jobs taught me how to learn a lot in a hurry about places and events, lessons which have been invaluable to me as a novelist whenever it's time for a research trip. Because, as we all know, such trips aren't cheap, and every writer wants to make the most of them.
So, as the world begins reopening from its pandemic lockdown, here are some tips on how to most efficiently use your time when you travel to research your settings and the characters who will inhabit them.
• If possible, arrange beforehand with a local media outlet or online publication to write a freelance piece on the place you're visiting, even if it's for free. Being able to use that outlet's name will help open doors and improve access to people you might need to see or interview. It will also heighten your need for pre-trip preparation, which brings us to the next tip.
• The more advance planning you do, the less time you'll waste after arrival. List every site you'll need to visit, learn their relative proximity to each other and to where you'll be staying (and don't book a room until you've done this) and accordingly figure out the order in which you'll visit them. If some require extra transportation, arrange it in advance, or at least know what you'll need to do to arrange it once you're there.
• Line up interviews with any local experts or authorities in advance. If your book will be set in a recent era of the place's history – the Cold War, for example, or the Depression – scout online for used travel guidebooks from that era. They're helpful in showing how the place looked and operated in that period, compared to now.
• For any museums and archives you'll visit, be aware of the opening hours, and any national holidays or events that might cause an unexpected closure. Get tickets or permission to enter in advance, especially if they're still limiting attendance due to Covid.
• In visiting anyplace where English isn't spoken, consider hiring a fixer-translator for at least a day or two. This can be pricey if you do it through a translation bureau, so instead try to hire a journalist from the area, preferably from an outlet with an English-language edition, since those staffers will have a command of English. Reporters at these publications tend to have helpful local contacts, and, because they're often underpaid, they're sometimes eager for moonlighting roles paying hard currency. Negotiate an hourly or, preferably, a daily rate in advance.
• After arriving, live as much as possible the way your characters will. If they ride mass transit, do the same. If they drive cars, rent one and get out into traffic. Eat and drink in the sorts of cafes, restaurants and bars that they'll frequent. Walk their streets. Enter their apartment buildings and neighborhoods. Whether you're in a small town in Idaho or a bustling city like Barcelona, pay careful attention to the locals – their signature gestures, ways of doing things, the codes and cues of local interaction. Keep all five senses on full alert for helpful detail, and take so many notes that your writing hand is cramped at the end of every day, because you'll later be amazed at how evocative even a few lines can be when you read them long afterward. They'll open up memories and sensory detail which you'd thought you'd forgotten, which can help you finish that next chapter as if you were still on location. For the same reason, shoot plenty of photos and video with your phone.
• Once you've returned, mark a big map of the place with all the key locations you'll use in your book, while keeping in mind the best ways to navigate from one to the other. If you have a few gaps, or your notes and memory falter, Google Earth can help in a pinch. Then, with all that you've learned still percolating in your head, you're ready to roll.
• And never get rid of those notes. You never know when you may want to revisit that place in another book going forward.
The Cover Wife by Dan Fesperman is published by Head of Zeus
Read what crime writer Nick Quantrill has to say about the importance of place in fiction.