When you explore the setting of your novel in person, on a research trip, you discover material you didn’t even know you were searching for.
Exploring your setting changes the way you see your protagonist, and it might even change the story you intend to tell. But those insights into your novel won’t happen when your only connection to the location is Google StreetView.
What will be waiting for you at the setting of your novel?
Three stories from the road.
You will find the material and inspiration you’ve searched for so long. Australian author Hannah Kent decided to write about the tragic life and death of Agnes, a woman from 1828. The setting of the book was Iceland. And researching details about this small, northern country during that particular period was not easy.
Over months and months, Hannah had tried to get her hands on a copy of a certain Icelandic book. A book which should reveal historical details about her protagonist’s trial and beheading, about Agnes’s childhood, about her upbringing as an orphan, and more about her short life.
Despite the availability of digitalised manuscripts, despite used bookstores, despite online libraries, and despite her immense effort to buy a copy of that particular book, she continued to meet dead ends. Eventually she decided she needed to travel to Iceland, as Hannah Kent discussed in an interview with Australian Story.*
She’d even conducted research in the Icelandic National Archives – and still, she didn’t succeed in finding this particular book.
“I was banking all my hopes on finding it at these libraries,” said Hannah. “Unfortunately, I could find it in none of them. And of course, I was absolutely devastated. You spend two years trying to find out all this information about someone who’s really no more than a ghost to you, and suddenly, you know, my hopes were dashed.”
Her weeks of research time at the archives were over. In order to sort through her material and write, Hannah Kent retreated to a little, rented Icelandic cottage in a very isolated location.
The farmer who helped with the luggage asked about her stay. Hannah briefly mentioned researching the circumstances of Agnes’s trial and death.
“That night, I was unpacking all my papers and all my notebooks, and there’s this polite little rap on the door,” Hannah recalls, “and I open it up and it’s Knutur [the farmer]. And he’s standing there in his overalls from milking his cows and he says, ‘Look, I’m so sorry to interrupt you. I know you came here to work, but I was wondering if this book might be useful for you?’”
And he handed over a small volume.
It was the book that Hannah had been searching for such a long time!
They spent the whole night translating and reading about Agnes’s life. Somehow, Hannah Kent says, this book was sort of awaiting her in Iceland in a way that she couldn’t get her hands on it while she was still in Australia. Receiving the information after all that time was a turning point when working on her novel. Her vague ideas about the character really solidified, and the next steps in writing became clearer.
Obviously, you can’t orchestrate this kind of serendipity. But the message stands – travelling to the location of your novel opens up possibility for positive circumstance to impact your book in a way that cannot happen if you’re not there in person.
What sources are waiting for you to be discovered?
You will meet the right people. The German author Martina André had decided that Scotland should be the setting of her new novel. At its essence, Die Teufelshure (The Devil’s Whore) is a gripping time-travel-meets-love-story-meets-microbiology-thriller.
One important plot detail was that Martina’s female protagonist, Madlen, should have a grave in a certain graveyard on a particular island in the Scottish Highlands.
Madlen’s descendant needed to discover it – a crucial scene, which was the mechanism that linked the book’s two plots, which occur almost 400 years apart from each other. But when Martina attempted to visit the graveyard, it was not possible for her to gain entry. It was a private area; only the relatives of a certain Scottish clan are allowed to visit the island.
By chance, Martina met and later befriended a Scottish woman, Mairi, only to learn that Mairi belonged to that particular Scottish clan! And of course Mairi had the permission to enter this particular graveyard and finally could show Martina around.
Will you meet just the right person to help you out while conducting research?
Sometimes, visiting the setting of your novel changes how you see your protagonists. Bestselling author Tanja Kinkel travelled all the way from Germany to Mongolia in order to conduct research for her novel, Manduchai. She only slept in yurt tents, tasted the typical, Mongolian mare milk, watched the horse races of Mongolian children and adults, essentially submerging herself in their culture and society, as the author explained in the newspaper Die Welt.**
Standing at the Taschbartu region, where Mongolian warrior queen Manduchai had won her decisive battle, the author finally felt connected to her protagonist.
“You only grasp the width of this country, and the tengri above – as the Mongolian call the eternal blue sky – when travelling across the steppe. While travelling on Manduchai’s traces,” Tanja Kinkel said, “I’ve had the luck to experience this.”
And this experience is mirrored back from each and every page of her fabulous novel.
Where can you go to finally feel connected to your protagonist?
And what are you missing out on, if you don’t travel to see the setting of your novel?
** Quotes from “Tanja Kinkel lernt die Liebeslieder der Mongolen”, in: Die Welt, October 18th, 2014.
Click on the image to watch the interview with Hannah Kent.