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Valerie Biel Asks Can You Set a Book Someplace You’ve Never Been?

Valerie Biel is the author of the Circle of Nine series. You can find out more about her on her website, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.

Yes, BUT it’s so much easier to write if you’ve been there. The internet makes it possible to virtually visit nearly every location on the planet, allowing you to experience a place through videos, photos, and other people’s accounts. So much so that you can gather enough pertinent details to use a location you’ve never actually visited as a setting in a book. In fact, while I had plans to tour a portion of the Amazon River basin of Brazil while I was writing a story set there, my plans fell through. I continued on with that story anyway and feel like I did a good job weaving in the details that make this setting unique. (I am looking forward to that trip now rebooked for 2023!!)

Photo by Valerie Biel

However, my Circle of Nine series is set partially in Ireland and my travels there have provided me with so many rich moments that I try to convey in both the setting and my characters. (And – according to my tax accountant – allows me to write off those travel expenses.)

There’s nothing like being the only visitors at the Beltany Stone circle in County Donegal on a late April morning just days before Beltane. Our feet crunch on the gravel as we hike the up-hill path under a canopy of deep green leaves that block out the sky. The air is fresh and crisp, our breath visible. We absorb the beauty and magic of the place but don’t speak . . . there’s no need.  As we enter the grassy area surrounding the circle, we push through the metal turnstile which squeaks jarringly, interrupting the wind and the birdsong. The fencing keeps in a herd of sheep, busy munching away not paying any mind to the strange visitors invading their space. The circle stands like it has for millennia—built on the top of the tallest hill in the area by long-ago people who lived by the cycle of the sun. If you close your eyes, you can feel the energy and imagine all those who have been at this holy site. The fog lifts and the sun comes out for a glorious moment, making you glad to be alive.

Traveling allows you to absorb the feel of a place—the smell, the taste, the conversations, the kindnesses all become part of your world and enrich your writing:

Photo of hills by Valerie Biel

The warmth of the gentle sea breeze coming off Clew Bay that salts your lips before you turn and start the tough climb up Croagh Patrick.

The encouragement you receive from fellow hikers when you stop to rest meters from the top, unsure if you have the stamina to finish.

The delicious burn of the whiskey you sip as a reward for making the trek even as you know your quads will be complaining for days.

The earthy sweet smell of a peat fire warming the local pub as a patient barman explains the rules of hurling to you.

The jovial fans who laugh when you ask who they’re rooting for when you see Ireland’s not playing in the game blaring from the television perched above the bar. “Anyone but England,” they tell you.

The hushed respect of Inishmore’s residents gathering at the dock to greet the casket of a fellow islander returning home to his final resting place.

The weathered face of your pony cart driver who explains he’s the fourth and last generation of his family to give tours of the Dunloe Gap, his face morphing from a hint of sadness to pride as he talks of his biochemist son and lawyer daughter who live in the city.

The frazzled waitress who apologizes for the higgledly piggledy breakfast room at your hotel, explaining with a laugh that a tour group just left, and she’d have everything tidy in a moment. (And all day long, you try to figure out a logical way to use ‘higgledly piggledy’ in your manuscript because it’s the best phrase EVER.)

And there’s so many, many more. You can read more about my travels in these blog posts.

In the comments below, tell me about your favorite book settings that made you feel like you were really there right along with the characters, and if you’re a writer, share the travel experiences that most enriched your writing! 

Valerie Biel

Valerie Biel is the author of the award-winning Circle of Nine series (stories inspired by Celtic mythology and the stone circles of Ireland). Learn more about her on her website, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Valerie — As a fan of your series, I can say that every page conveys Irish authenticity in both the setting and characters.


    Christine DeSmet’s Fudge Shop Mystery Series is one of the book settings that makes you feel like you’re really in Door County, WI.

    The travel experiences that most enrich my writing are visits to Bellingham, WA, where the Sean McPherson novels are set.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Thanks, Laurie! Don’t you love that about Christine’s books – Door County is one of my favorite places!! Except for your books, I have not been to that part of the country. I sure do wish your writing retreat location was real — well — minus the murders. 🙂

  2. joyribar

    Val, thank you for taking me back to Ireland in your sensory descriptions. I love a good setting to travel into, which is probably why my heart belongs to the Middle Earth Shire and anyplace that compares. I’m sure I saw pieces of the Shire in rural England and Ireland when I traveled there. But there are too many other great places worth visiting in books (Anne of Green Gables series, A Year in Provence, Eat Pray Love…) I’m so thankful to authors who can take me away!

  3. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    Me too, Joy!! Setting/locations (real or imagined) are often why I pick a book up when I need to arm-chair travel. Prince Edward Island has long been on my list of places I’d like to visit only because of our beloved Anne. And you nail your small-town setting in your series. It makes for a lovely backdrop for all things murder and mayhem!

  4. Sherrill M Joseph
    Sherrill M Joseph

    Valerie, I appreciate your sensory descriptions that transport me not just to Ireland, but to another time. That’s the hallmark of a great writer, IMO. A trip to Hawai’i certainly helped me authentically describe that setting in my Book 4. One of my favorite descriptions that takes me away is the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Suddenly, I’m standing by the padlocked, rusty spokes of its iron gate, then magically whisked through the twists and turns of the unkempt drive and menacing woods that end me up at the “secretive and silent” house “shining in the moonlight.” Ah, the joys of rich description! Thanks.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Isn’t it lovely how those lines stick with you, Sherrill? Delicious descriptions in that book and in yours!!

  5. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    What I love is being taken to someplace that is physically impossible to get to, such as the distant past.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      So true, Anne! That’s why I also love time-travel stories. In fact, I want to write a time travel story about time travel being just like booking a regular vacation.
      “So, where are going for your school break this year?”
      “My parents are taking the whole family back to 1905 again! I’m going to be so bored!”

      1. Tracey Phillips
        Tracey Phillips

        We can only wish! It would be the best vacation ever planned!

  6. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Your descriptions in this post are so juicy! I feel like I just took a mini vaca to Ireland, just now!
    I love writing about destination locations, but sometimes, one can only imagine what they would be like. Google Earth can help with that, but it doesn’t give you the sensory input, like the smell of wild rosemary beneath your feet while hiking in the Mediterranean. But I do tend to place stories in cities/towns where I’ve lived. And I’ve been fortunate enough to live in 6 cities/towns in 4 states!

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      Oooh, the smell of wild rosemary while hiking in the Mediterranean — I’m in!! The internet is great for so much — I’ve had rely on that for locations I just couldn’t get to, but it makes layering in those extra details that much harder for sure!

  7. Avatar

    I’ve never been to Ireland, but your description takes me there. I enjoyed this post, because I also love to travel and experience new people, places, and things. When I was teaching, I liked to gather photos and information to bring back to my students. Now that I’m writing, I’ve adjusted my objectives. Now I want to absorb the full experience of a setting, so I can replicate that for my readers. I’ve done extensive traveling, but my Detective Parrott series is set in a place I never dreamed I would fall in love with–the serene, naturally-gorgeous Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      I agree with absorbing the scene/setting so you can replicate it later. I was at a wedding at an event barn last evening and was fascinated with the mix of textures; elegant fine tablecloths/gauzy drapes, rustic wooden wheel chandeliers/barn boards, natural dried grass centerpieces, and whimsical lighted trees and strands draping from the ceiling. My husband was like ‘what are you doing?’ I think I said something like I was ‘saving the scene’ to use later. LOL That was before the groomsmen made a tower out of beer cans . . . gotta love Wisconsin. 🙂

  8. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    Thank you for this lovely post, Valerie! It swept me away to Ireland which is one place I’d love to visit someday.

    1. Valerie Biel
      Valerie Biel

      It’s a lovely place. We’ve been in every county at least once, so if you start planning, I’d be happy to suggest some of our favorite places for consideration.

  9. Tim Chapman
    Tim Chapman

    Absolutely agree that getting a feel for a location in person can improve what you put on the page. John D. MacDonald lived in Florida in the 1960s, and his books convey that time and place.

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