By Beth Dunn
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m addicted to the internet. I spend pretty much every minute of the day online, unless I’m sleeping, driving, or exercising. But it’s not all funny cat videos and screencaps of sexy British leading men in cravats.
It’s also surprisingly useful for doing in-depth location research when I’m writing. Social media lets me spend lots of time in lots of different places at once, and more than once, it’s helped me decide where to set a story.
You might think that’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. I’ll let my old graduate school advisor tell you why.
Vienna is lovely in the summer
When I was in grad school for geology, lo these many years ago, one of the first things I needed to do was decide where I was going to do my field work. So, being a logical, methodical kind of person, I thought long and hard about what my research interests were, checked the literature, and made a list of topics that I thought might be fruitful for new contributions in the next year or two. Then I made a list of some of that places where that research might be done, and showed it to my advisor.
She scanned my list, sighed deeply, and handed it back to me. Then she asked me a question.
“Where do you want to spend the next five summers of your life?”
I might have blinked. She went on.
“See, I like my creature comforts, I like to know I can get a decent hotel room and a good meal, so I do research in Europe. I’ve done field work in the desert, and I hated it. If I read my dissertation now, I’d be able to feel the sand grit between my teeth again in an instant, and I’d want to punch something. If you want to love your work, choose a place that you love. Trust me: There are interesting questions to answer everywhere.”
I glanced down at my carefully assembled list. Only one of the places I had come up with even sounded slightly appealing to me, on reflection.
“Vienna,” I said.
She smiled. “Vienna is lovely in the summer. And the museum is open later than most. Excellent. Write it up. I’ll see you next week.”
So I did my field work in Vienna.
Now, I ended up not pursuing the life of a paleontologist, as you’ve probably already guessed. But my advisor’s words have stayed with me. It sounds frivolous on the face of it, but obviously she was right — if you’re going to be spending lots of time in a particular place (real or imagined), you’d better be damn sure you like it there.
But as a geologist, I needed to physically visit a place in order to research it. Nobody else was going to climb those mountains and bash a rock hammer against some limestone and ship it home for me. I needed to get on the plane and do it myself.
Fiction writing leaves us a few other options. Writers have long used other books, of course, to research their locations. Maps, timetables, local histories, biographies — the list goes on, and it’s a familiar one.
But the internet opens up a whole new world for location research. Social media — Twitter in particular — has been phenomenal in helping me better understand a place I’ve never been before, often in very fine detail.
Twitter is great for field research
My stories take place in England, so I maintain Twitter lists of a bunch of different groups of people, all composed of Twitterers based in England. I follow a Bath list, a Bristol list, a London list, and a Yorkshire list of folks on Twitter, because I’m currently writing stories that take place in those locations.
I can hear you scoff: Just how helpful is it to know what people in Bath are having for lunch? Or to learn that there’s a chronic problem with rubbish collection in Norwich? Or that traffic is absolutely mental today on the M1?
Well, it’s actually a lot more helpful than you might think.
First, listening in on conversations on Twitter gives me a great sense of the vernacular of a place. You’d be surprised how well regional differences in speech come through in just 140 characters. And how little these cadences are likely to have changed over time.
Second, I can ask questions about simple things if I’m curious. Folks are usually happy to reply to things like “How long a walk is it from the High Street to the waterfront?” or “What’s the weather usually like there at Christmas?”
Third, I’ve now got friends I can meet up with when I do buy that plane ticket and do the serious, hands-on research. And there’s nothing like knowing a local for really getting a feel for a town. I’ve met up with teachers, librarians, baristas, and garbage collectors in my travels.
I can assure you, garbage collectors give excellent street tours.
Social media is great for meeting people, forming relationships, and establishing professional ties. But it can also give you an ear to the ground in a bunch of different locations at once, providing you with an unmatched opportunity to get a sense of a place, an insider’s view of a town, and a local guide when you’re passing through.
It’s like remote sensing for writers. I dig it.
How do you use social media — or even just the internet in general — to help you in your research?