Researching locations when you can’t leave your house – Laurie Ellingham

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By Laurie Ellingham

It’s a given that the absolute best way to research a setting for a novel is to go there, multiple times if possible. Take in the sounds and the smells and the types of people. Take photos, copious notes, and enjoy a day out, because hey, us writers really don’t get out much.

But it’s not always possible to visit the setting for your novel, or in my case – settings. One Endless Summer follows Lizzie, Jaddi, Samantha and cameraman Ben to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, and America. And with the exception of New York thirteen years ago, I hadn’t been to any of them.

With no budget or time to visit all of these wonderful places, I had to get creative with my research. Here are my top tips for researching a location without leaving your house:

1. Ask friends (and friends of friends) and family who have been there. People love to talk about their adventures. My wonderful friend Cathy sent me the emails she’d sent to her mum and dad whilst she’d been backpacking Thailand, which gave me a sense of the spontaneity of travelling (and the sweating buckets humidity).

2. Be specific. Decide where exactly your characters are going to go. I knew I wanted the girls to try surfing in Australia and Google searched: Best places to surf on the east coast of Australia before settling on Coolangatta beach on the Gold Coast.

3. Use Tripadvisor and other review sites. Once you’ve decided where your characters will be hanging out, head to review sites and read as many reviews as possible on the place. Many reviewers add stories to their reviews which is pure gold for us writers. When I was researching the best and cheapest way to travel from Bangkok to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) I read a review on Trip Advisor that warned of the perils of using taxis for these types of journeys. I won’t tell you why, but it made for a great scene in One Endless Summer.

4. YouTube it. Almost everyone takes videos of the places they visit these days, and most videos end up on Youtube. Watching videos made by ordinary travellers gave me a fantastic insight into the chaos and noise of the street markets in Bangkok.

5. Double-check your facts. Every detail of a real place has to be accurate, because you can bet anything that one of your readers will have been there and won’t be happy if you’ve got even the smallest detail wrong. I double, then triple checked the flight times for the flights my characters took for fear of getting a time zone wrong.

5. Got a question – ask Quora. is a place to ask any question you like and within twenty-four hours you’ll usually have multiple answers from people all over the world. As well as being a great way to get detailed answers for any question you have, Quora is also a treasure trove for writers and is brimming with novel ideas from the questions other people pose to the answers given.

7. Oh, and make it up. It’s not always ideal to write about a specific hotel, especially if you want it teaming with cockroaches in your novel. Once you’ve got a sense of the place your characters are visiting, add a fictional restuarant/pub/hotel to suit the story. This gives you creative license, and means you won’t be offending any business owners when your novel is published.

My final tip for adding realism to a description is to consider all the senses. Sight is the obvious one, followed closely by sound. But don’t forget smell, taste, touch, as well as light changes, shadows and the weather. A description can quickly become bogged down if you try to squeeze them all in, but choosing a select few each time can give the reader the sense of really being there alongside your characters.

Laurie Ellingham lives in Chelmsford, moving from East London five years ago, to settle in a small village on the Suffolk/Essex border with her two children, husband and cockerpoo Rodney. She has a First Class honors degree in Psychology and a background in Public relations, but her main love is writing and disappearing into the fictional world of her characters, preferably with a large coffee and a Twix (or two) to hand. Her novel, One Endless Summer, is released today.

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