This year, in addition to the third George Hughes book, George goes to Neptune, I have also completed a first draft of a novel set almost entirely on Lundy Island. Details of this novel will remain top secret for now, but the fact it is set on Lundy got me thinking: is it possible to write convincingly about a real location if you have never actually set foot there?
Visiting Lundy is something I could easily do since I live in South West England, but I haven’t got round to it yet. However I have researched the island in immense detail; examining photographs, poring over maps, reading guide books, discovering details about its population, history, buildings, coastline, flora and fauna… you name it. Furthermore, my mother-in-law has stayed there, and has also provided a great deal of information about what the place looks and feels like.
I am reminded of another author who did very little travel yet wrote extensively about other lands and cultures without actually visiting them: Herge. Many of the cells in the Tintin comics are based on photographs of real places, and it is clear from the text that his subjects are meticulously researched. The fact that Herge did not actually go to many of these places doesn’t seem to detract at all from the richness of his storytelling.
Frankly, if you do your research properly, I don’t think it is strictly necessary to visit a location in order to write about it. A visit can certainly help and provide inspiration, and I would always prefer to do that (I am determined to visit Lundy soon), but I don’t think it is absolutely essential.
Conversely, I would argue that writing about things outside your personal experience is a much more difficult proposition than writing about a location you haven’t actually visited. By that I don’t mean the mechanics of a plot – after all, I haven’t been to Mars, Titan or Neptune but that didn’t stop me writing about visiting them in the George Hughes series – but more the underlying themes of a story.
For example, the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings have clearly been written by someone who has been in armed conflict (Tolkien served in the British Army during the First World War). As a result, in spite of the fantasy setting, the horrors of war are far more resonant than they would have been otherwise.
Heartbreaking themes of lost fathers crop up again and again in the works of Charles Dickens. Because his own father was imprisoned for debt, this experience no doubt informed much of his writing, making it far more poignant and believable.
My upcoming novel Children of the Folded Valley (out on the 20th of July) draws on themes of control and abuse in religious cults, of which I have personal experience. I’m not saying it is impossible to write about being in a cult unless you have been in one, but I believe personal experience on the part of the author does make a difference, and is a far more important factor in the success or otherwise of a novel than simply whether or not you have actually visited a location you are writing about.