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!!)
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:
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!