When I travel for research I absorb the life around me. It’s rather like osmosis and I become a part of the place I am staying. I find it’s the little things that make for authenticity in a novel: the way fruit and vegetables are presented in markets in baskets without a plastic covering in sight, the signs in a different language that I slowly translate in my mind, the way fashions in a dress shop window are displayed, or the culture of bike riding in big cities. In walking the streets of Paris one thing I did learn was that as well as the streets themselves the cobbles also reflect the history of the city. It’s no use writing that someone walked down a cobbled street if the cobbles have been removed.
And, I love talking to the locals in any country I visit. Often, of course, I can’t speak the native language but I seem to manage, and I’m rather pleased I made myself understood by the older non-English speakers of an Egyptian family while living in their home in Cairo. It’s about smiles and laughter after all.
When you travel for research it’s also about the air you breathe, the dazzle of light or the lack of it. In Australia where I live people wear sunglasses on overcast days because of the glare but in England even on a sunny day there is often no need for them. It’s the scent of spring in the air or the cold winds of winter. It’s the forms of transport, the trees, the flowers, the ambience of the place.
However, sometimes it’s impossible to travel far from home: family commitments, finances or a day job that limits time. Laura Hillenbrand, the author of two best-selling non-fiction books, fell ill and wrote while mainly confined to her home. Her story, is in itself, the subject of a book I’d love to read. Due to her illness, she couldn’t travel for research, she stayed home. If you are unable to travel you can nonetheless, with the many resources available: online, books about your subject and travel books, documentaries, movies, perhaps speaking to an expert on your subject via Skype or mobile, write your novel.