Bon Voyage: Locations in Writing

Notre Dame MontrealBonjour la lagune!

This past Sunday–my last official day in Vermont–my sister and her husband took me on a drive up to Montreal for the day. Despite life’s craziness, I’d thankfully had the presence of mind to grab my passport in anticipation of such an adventure.

Vermonters drive up to Montreal regularly: for an event, for the day, or for a weekend getaway. My brother-in-law used to deliver lost bags from the Burlington airport, which took him into Montreal so often that he makes both a fantastic driver and tour guide. We ate sushi and Greek food, visited the Notre Dame Montreal to light a candle for my nephew, and even stopped at a Chapters and Indigo so that I could sign some books (hooray, Canada for stocking all my YA novels!).

Mom and Dad and Soteria and I moved away from Vermont when I was six, so I hadn’t been to Montreal in my adult life. I found it lovely and fascinating…like being in France, only everyone speaks English. All the street signs and flyers are in French, and when you’re walking down the street past the outdoor cafes, all you hear is French. But when you ask a salesperson for help, they speak perfect, unaccented English.

I told someone once that my family was “French Canadian” in front of my Memere. She corrected me by firmly stating, “We are FRENCH.” I totally get that now.

I am a firm believer in travel–wherever you can, whenever you are able.

Most of Hero is spent with a witch and a dragon in caves in the White Mountains. While I did not have access to a witch or a dragon, I was only a few hours away from Luray Caverns, so I took a day trip there. I filled an entire notebook with phrases and words and feelings and impressions….the experience was invaluable to the writing of that novel.

But we’re not always that lucky.

When I was putting together Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter Companion, the publisher asked me to include a full section on New Orleans, since that is where most of the books take place. This presented a problem: not only had I never been to New Orleans, but I also did not have the funds to travel there to do my research. I was forced to use what I had: the Internet, books from the library, and a friend who was traveling there. I read all I could, visited ghost tour and carriage ride websites, and pored over every pamphlet and picture Eddie brought home for me. And I guess the publisher liked it, because there were virtually no editorial comments made on that entire section.

The year after writing that–right before it was published–I was finally able to go to New Orleans with Sherrilyn Kenyon. There I was, visiting a place I’d never been, but I could have given my own tour. Everything was strange and familiar, all at once.

It was the second-most surreal location experience I’d ever had.

The MOST surreal was the time I got to visit the town I made up in my own head.

The first book I wrote as an adult (most importantly, the first novel I ever finished) was called HAVEN. (This was back in 2004, before *everything* was called HAVEN.) It was based on a town I’d made up in which to set my Possessed Scarecrow YA Horror Novel. I wanted somewhere in the midwest…like Kansas. But what should I name the town? Let’s see…if I was a Homesteader way back when, traveling across the US with no idea how long–or if–I’d ever reach another shore, and I decided to just STOP, what would I call that place? Well, for me, the tired Homesteader, it would be a haven…so that’s what I named it. Haven, Kansas.

Months later, long after the first draft, it occurred to me to type “Haven” into the Weather Channel website, to see if there was a town called Haven anywhere in the US. There was only one. Yup, you guessed it…

Haven, Kansas.

Fast forward a year or so, to a visit with my friends Tammy and Mark in Wichita. Over dinner one night, I mentioned my John Carpenteresque Kansas writing story. Mark–who grew up in Kansas–proceeded to tell me that Haven was only about two hours from where we were.

Obviously, we had to go visit.

Visiting the town was indeed surreal, but in a way that informed my writing. I took tons of pictures and made notes on things that would have been relevant to my novel. The most fascinating bit, however, was Mark…who spent the entire two-hour drive up there telling me what it was like to be a kid growing up in Kansas. I filled page after page in my notebook, and when I got home, I did my first full-out revision of that first finished novel.

[Edited to add: At the request of my agent, I am currently revising that manuscript again, so that we can get it out to some editors…she *loves* the story. So stay tuned!]


All of which is toΒ  say: Never underestimate the power of travel. Write about a place you’ve never been, and then go there, or vice versa. Both experiences will change the way you do research for a story or novel when you can’t actually visit the location you’re writing about.

And then one day, when we’re rich and famous, we can travel to all of these places.

So…is your passport up to date?
Where in the world would you like to go?

14 thoughts on “Bon Voyage: Locations in Writing

  1. Love your advice there at the end, Alethea. Write it then go or vice versa. And that is very cool about your realization on French-ness in Montreal. Thank you for taking us along on just a few of your magnificent journeys.

    My passport is indeed up to date and if we’re adding just a little magic, I’d love to go to Cold Mountain. That has quickly become one of my favorite books and movies of all time. And one of these days, I’m taking the tour of Forks, WA!


        1. Ironically, one of my favorite t-shirts is from the Eclipse movie…it’s just SO SOFT. But I am often worried I’ll be mistaken for a Team Someone if I wear it outside my house….

  2. My passport is up to date! My wild and crazy would be to tour the West. I would do a tour of the Grand Canyon, raft a river there, explore the Native American historical sites, and absorb the whole Tony Hillerman vibe of small-town life OverThere. And I’d get me some cowboy vibe, too, and stay on a dude ranch. And ride a horse.

    Otherwise, I have a friendforlife who wants me to see Australia, and all its magical, mysterious wonders. Or I’d go back to Paris. And, while I was there, I would travel to Greece as well, so I could experience the ancient world bumping up against the 21st century. Honest, how do these people live next door to the Parthenon and not live in awe on a daily basis?

    So run the thoughts of an armchair traveler with more dreams than money.

  3. My passport is still up to date (Germany/Europe this past year). But next time–Romania, baby!! Cluj-Napoca (where my book takes place–and the paranormal Hoia Forest) and Sibiu (where my grandfather is from).

    Anyone interested in a retreat? πŸ˜‰

    1. I totally want to hide in your suitcase to Romania. I read a statistic that they have a 97% literacy rate in that country. How crazy is that?? I have a bunch of Romanian fans…and I’ve learned to say small things like “Good morning” and “thank you” and “how are you?” They really appreciate the effort!

  4. Ohhh, I love this post. You know, I’ve wanted to go to Montreal for years! YEARS!

    I also love what I’ve read of Haven so I fully support you working on it some more.

    Remember Nora’s chat at RWA Nationals – she said she rarely visits the places she writes about. Hard to believe if you’ve read her books and know all of the details she puts into them. But the internet has definitely changed the game for all of us. πŸ˜‰

    1. There is still that thing the internet can’t give you — that feeling of what it’s like to actually live in a place. How big the refrigerator is. How often the average family goes out to eat. How much time is spent watching television. The average price for gas. What happens when it snows.

      When you get to go to a place and really root around, you get more of a feel for these things. But once you’ve done that…then you know what to look for when doing more research. You find yourself on tour blogs or Craigslist rather than Wikipedia…it’s an interesting phenomenon!

      1. Alethea, I’m reading over this late at night, and suddenly I recall the book I bought for the library this year: Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers. And I’m leafing through it this week and, golly, I feel as if I’m *there*. A must-see for anyone who dreams of writing about the American 40s or 50s. With that book, you have enough information to let your mind spin out the story.

  5. Great post! I’m writing my mermyth novel Sirens of Santorini based on 16 year old memories of Santorini though when I went back last year to finalise my research I found my writing of setting was very spot on plus I discovered places I’d written about that I hadn’t seen before??? It was quite bizarre how intuitively I knew that place, how subconsciously it had settled in my soul….I think a part of my soul resides there but the rest of me HAS to go back, even live there for a while…

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