You’ve heard the advice, “Write what you know”? Dull stuff if you don’t know much. I turned that around last week by visiting Providence, RI, in which I have set the novel I’m struggling to write. I went there, parked the rental car, walked the sidewalks, had coffee, visited a book store and bought a guide book. And read it. I no longer have to invent every detail of the setting. I can envision much of it. I see the errors I would have committed without that site visit. An ailing character could not have walked up that hill. For one thing the old sidewalks are cracked and treacherous in spots. He could not have passed out on an isolated part of the college campus because the campus in question is busy, busy and someone besides his companion would have noticed, would have seen him recover and sneak away while his son’s back was turned.
The park where my characters linger is real, has a name and a convenient bench, just as I had hoped. The houses are clear in my mind, despite my plan to use an non-existent address. There’s the athletic field where the boy plays basketball. There’s a school that will one day be converted into a shelter. It’s there and now my job is to select the details that will anchor the story and give me a clear map on which to trace the action. In one day’s exploration, I’ve stashed enough detail to orient the whole book. It was worth the cost and the discomfort of air travel to be there. What I didn’t know without the trip would have made a fool of me. Don’t be content with what you think you know. Book a flight, drive the streets, walk and look and fix it in your mind.