How to write about places you've never visited

Matt Whyman
Category: Writing

‘Only write about what you know.'  It’s one of those sayings that you often hear from seasoned scribes with a billion books under their belt. As a result, nobody likes to question it for fear of looking like a rank amateur.

Essentially, we’re writing about how it is to be human, and we’re all experienced in that.

Personally, I think it’s a useful piece of advice. The key is not to take it literally. Too many people wrongly assume this means it must be illegal to set your stories anywhere you haven’t personally visited. If that were true, where would we stand on stories set on Mars, for example? We may not have set foot on the Red Planet just yet, but everyone has a licence to imagine what it must be like - and to do so convincingly. Why? Because we can all empathise with how it would feel to be the first on that frontier. Essentially, we’re writing about how it is to be human, and we’re all experienced in that.

Every writer is different, of course. Some like to live in a location before writing about it, or making it central to the narrative, and that’s fine. All I’m stressing here is that you shouldn’t feel places are out of bounds just because it’s too difficult, dangerous or expensive for you to go there in person.

So next time you put pen to paper, don’t limit yourself to setting a story somewhere that you know. With a little forethought, you can go anywhere in the world – and beyond if that’s what floats your boat. Here’s a few travel-free tips that might help:

1. Keep the location detail to a minimum.

You’re writing a story, not a travel guide. Your readers want to get involved with the characters, so be sparing with your setting. A few brushstrokes to begin with will transport your reader. After that, let their imagination take over.

2. Check your facts.

Kicking off with a description of the fifty-storey green glass skyscraper that towers over the Edinburgh skyline might sound cool, but it risks those readers familiar with that location failing to believe another word you’ve written.

3. The internet is your friend, but not your best mate.

Do you really need to spend a month scoping out the fish markets in downtown Hong Kong?

It’s very easy to get lost in location research. All the tools are at your fingertips, but do you really need to spend a month scoping out the fish markets in downtown Hong Kong? Be realistic here, and manage your creative time constructively.

4. Let your characters crack on with the story.

When the theatre curtains open, we take one look at the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and register that we’re in Paris. Then the lights fade on the backdrop, and the focus falls on the cast. They could even honk through their lines in English. It won’t have an impact on the location as we’ve already made that imaginary leap. What matters from that moment on is that the story they have to tell is engaging, and the same applies to your characters on the page.

To watch Matt answer teens' questions on writing, check out this video. We have teaching resources available to help you explore Matt's book The Savages, a deliciously macabre tale which has received widespread acclaim.

Matt Whyman

Matt is a bestselling author and resident agony uncle for both Bliss Magazine and BBC Radio 1's The Surgery with Aled. He writes for both adults and young adults. His previous young adult books have been shortlisted for various awards and his book The Savages has received widespread praise - being described by The Guardian as 'a dark-hearted comedy of family life... too good not to talk about and share.'