How to describe places: my research technique

photo courtesy Shutterstock

My first visit to Iceland was going to be very different from the book tour in 1995. This time I had to build up a store of the impressions, the feelings, the sounds, the smell and the little details to fuel my writing of the first draft of my novel over a six-month period.

Research Technique

I had researched many settings for my previous novels — Fife, Brazil, Massachusetts, Prague, Clerkenwell, the Cote d’Azur, Wyoming, South Africa and 1930s Berlin — so I knew what I was doing, but I was daunted. Before, most of my characters had been flying in and out of places. This time Magnus and my characters were stuck in Iceland for at least three books, maybe more.

I had better get it right.

Over the years, I have developed and refined a method for gathering information on locations for my books. I wander around with a tape recorder, a camera and a notebook, my eyes and ears on high alert, taking note of anything I see or hear that might be useful. I use the tape recorder most, muttering into it thoughts and impressions as they occur to me.

My wife finds this mildly embarrassing. I remember a trip to Prague where she chose to walk a couple of yards behind me, pretending she had nothing to do with the weird English guy talking to himself.  

It may look weird — it does look weird — but it works. I do listen to the recording at the end of the day and write most of it down, but it is the act of speaking the thought into the recorder that fixes it into my memory.

These days I can combine the camera and the tape recorder in my iPhone and pretend I am on a phone call.  Not quite so weird, just a little strange.

What am I looking for? Anything and everything, but there are a few areas I focus on.

First impressions. You only get these once. Write them down.

Details. When I started writing I used to worry that I would be lousy at description because I am not a natural at metaphor or simile, and my prose is clear rather than purple. But I learned that great descriptions often are made up of perfectly selected small details.

These are best when they don’t match the stereotypes of the location. For example, Copacabana beach is famous for its beautiful sunbathers and its sparkling sea. When I was there, drinking a caipirinha with a friend, a hooker with bright yellow hair lurched up to us, and after propositioning us, threw up on a nearby lamppost. That went into the book, as did the small boy peeing on a police car parked in the shade of a palm tree.

Symbols. I look for prominent landmarks in a location that I will refer to several times in a book. Each repetition makes the landmark and hence the location seem more familiar to the reader, so that by the end of the book she feels she really knows the location. Ideally, these will not be the tourist stereotypes that come to mind immediately when you think of a place, but in practice this is hard to avoid.

It’s good if the symbol can be looked at in different ways by different people at different times of day.  In Rio, the obvious choice is the Corcovado, with the statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of the mountain overlooking the city. But more interesting is the favela that tumbles down to the sea on the headland between Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. It is both squalid and beautiful; a sign of modern poverty and almost medieval in its primitive construction.

People. I will need to describe people in each setting, and it is useful to have a set of descriptions to start with. Once again, the less stereotypical the better, but at this stage it’s important to write down what you see, and stereotypes do wander around the streets of the countries that created them. There are indeed beach beauties in Rio, and incredibly skilful young men playing foot volleyball on the beach, but there are also bald plump men with glasses and briefcases.

Movement. What moves? Description comes alive if it isn’t static. People, vehicles, birds, clouds, animals all move about, come and go. A street kid looking skinny on the pavement is one thing. A street kid peeing on the local police car is a better thing — at least for the novelist.

Sounds and smells. What can you hear? What can you smell? Stop, shut your eyes and wait. Then write it down. I remember lying on a beach in Rio, with my eyes closed and listening. It sounded as if I was in a bar. People go to beaches in Rio not just to get a tan, certainly not to read a book, but to chat, to see and be seen, to exchange gossip. 

If I do this properly, when I am back in my study writing a scene, I look through my notes and feel that I am back in Brazil, or South Africa or Manhattan or wherever.  And so, I hope, will my readers.

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  1. What moves? Molten rivulets of glowing lava at Fagradalsfjall of late! Wow! I remember some airport kerfluffles in a previous Magnus, and some wonderfully atmospheric lava-scapes. The Iceland video on our local news just days ago was eye-popping, and has me longing for forthcoming Magnus. Today is Tolkien Reading Day, and in truth just past midnight this morning a tiny quake (3.1) that most of us in Helena slept through 'epicentered' a mere 26 miles away from our city. To coin Carole King, the Earth Moves. Thank you for this latest process blog, Michael. Writing in Ice is indeed a must read.

    1. It certainly does move, doesn't it? And it looks so pretty!


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