Tuesday, July 1

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, July 01, 2014 12 comments
photo by deegolden at morguefile
If you're heading out on the road (or air or sea) for some much-needed rest and relaxation, you don't necessarily need to lug along your laptop to keep your hand in your writing. Just grab a small notebook and a pen, and you can easily use you leisure travel time to build a repository of details for use in a current or future project.

One of the most fun things to research through observation is setting. If you plan to set a story in your vacation destination, then any and every detail you can record will be useful. But even if your story world is quite different from where you're headed (i.e. science fiction or historical) you may find that observing real-world settings helps you think through key aspects of world building.

Pens ready? Here are some key things to observe and take notes on.


  • What's the lay of the land? Is it smooth and flat? Undulating with small hills? Mountainous? 
  • What is the quality of the ground? Rocky? Dry? Sandy? Reedy? Swampy? Muddy? Covered with sharp, stiff grass? Full of manicured lawns? Meadow-like? Lush fields of crops? Densely forested?
  • What bodies of water are nearby? Ocean? Sea? Lake? Pond? River? Stream? Creek? Wadi? Swamp?
  • What features of the land do you find most striking for positive or negative reasons? Gather sensory details about how they look, feel, sound, smell, and (where appropriate) taste.


  • Does the area have distinct seasons? What signs do you see to indicate that? 
  • How much does the temperature change in a given day? 
  • How humid or dry is the air? How does that make your skin and hair feel? 
  • What sorts of storms do you encounter? How does the air feel before, during, and after the storm? How does is smell?
  • What do you like and dislike most about the weather in this location? Gather sensory details about how the weather feels, sounds, looks and smells. 


  • What is the mix of public buildings? Mostly national chain stores, unique boutiques, or struggling mom-n-pop shops? Many office buildings or many factories? How diverse are the houses of worship? How well-kept are the schools?
  • What do most homes look like? How can you tell the prosperous neighborhoods from the poor ones?
  • In what era were most of the buildings built? How do older sections differ from newer ones?
  • What unique features seem adapted for the environment? (i.e. screen porches in buggy places, homes on stilts in flood-prone places)
  • What color schemes do you see most often? What kinds of furniture?
  • What buildings best represent this place? Snap some photos and gather sensory details of how the buildings look, feel, smell and sound.


  • What kinds of cuisine are offered at restaurants? Ethnic? Fancy? Unhealthy or healthy? Generous portions or stingy? Is food generally expensive, mid-range or dirt-cheap? 
  • What foods do locals love most? (A grocery store visit helps here)
  • What do the locals do for fun? 
  • What activities seem most advertised and supported? Sports? Arts? Shopping?
  • How do the locals dress? Are they fashion-forward or backward? Do they seem to spend a lot of time on their appearance or very little? What sorts of outfit would fit in or draw stares?
  • How do the locals interact with one another and with visitors? Are they chatty or standoffish? Polite or brusque? Easygoing or high-strung and rushed?
  • What's the prevailing mood of the local population? Do they seem happy and hopeful? Angry and annoyed? Discouraged and listless? 
  • What features of the local culture do you find most striking? Snap candid photos of everyday activities and gather sensory details about how foods smell and taste, how venues look, smell and sound.

What do you  most enjoy observing and learning about in new locations?


  1. Notebook and pen? How retro! But, I agree that just looking around and seeing without gadgetry is the best way to get a feel for people and settings. Of course, I have a google earth ap for assistance . .

    1. All the latest research says that the act of writing by hand makes your more creative. And in my experience, gadgets tend to distract you from being in the moment where you are.

      I do love using google maps (and earth) to help refresh my memory once I'm home. (I don't own a smartphone, so I don't know how useful/distracting it would be on the ground).

  2. This is a wonderful, timely post! I used our family trip to the Grand Canyon a few years ago to help me picture and understand the Canyonlands in my second novel, Champion in Flight. I tried to use the colors and shapes in my writing, as well as one or two types of plant and animal life. It really helped me set the scene.

    1. Great example of the power of observational research, and how it's useful even for fantasy settings. Awesome.

  3. Laurel . . . when I read your posts, I often wish they were all together in a book on writing. I keep storing links to different pages you've written so I can come back to them again and again. So . . . if you ever write a book on writing, you already have a customer. :)

    1. I wasn't planning to announce this until I had a draft closer to finished, but I've been working on the first of a series of writing reference works. This post is some of the material I'll be incorporating into book one, Writing When You Can't Write.

  4. What great ideas!! Very thorough, about setting. I think these would be very good questions to explore when imagining an alternate world, too (sci-fi or fantasy). :)

    1. As Tyrean mentioned, real-world details can be adapted to imagined locales, so definitely this will help anyone doing world building.

  5. Hi Laurel! This is a great post about what to observe in the world around us! I love that you are in the process of writing a reference book. Awesome!

    Last summer, my husband and I visited the Canadian Rockies, and that area became the inspiration for another novel. I took notes (in a notebook) like crazy and it really did help write the novel when it came time. So, these are great ideas! :)

    1. Thanks, Kristin. I'm a real research junkie and swear by on-the-ground observation to make compelling fiction. There's nothing like travel to stir the imagination! Good luck with your project.

  6. Definitely architecture! I am such a building junkie. I could just drive to other cities and spend hours cruising the streets looking at the buildings. =)

    1. Personally, I'd love to read a story about someone who has this particular hobby/interest. It's all the rage in academic literary criticism these days to explore the space and place in fiction--goes under the broad category of "geocriticism."