I Wrote a Book Set in a Place I’d Never Been To, Then I Visited That Place. How’d I Do?

My last novel, The Otto Digmore Difference, was a road trip story about Russel Middlebrook and his friend Otto Digmore traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans, so that Otto, an actor, can get to an all-important movie audition on time.

Here’s a little secret that I shouldn’t be confessing: I’d never actually driven most of the roads that Otto and Russel travel. I once lived in Los Angeles (where the book begins), and I’ve been to the Garden District in New Orleans (where the finale of the book is set), but I’ve never been to most of the places in between, including the road from Texas into Louisiana. The town of Bluke? I made that town up entirely, in part because I didn’t want to insult a specific place that I hadn’t actually visited.

todd233160I make two excuses: (1) This is a road trip story, but it’s really more of a relationship story (between Otto and Russel) than being about the actual locations they visit, and (1) I’m not rich enough to be able to afford to travel to every place I write about!

So how did I write about places I hadn’t physically visited? I used a combination of online research and, well, Google Earth. Yup, I traveled everywhere that Otto and Russel did, but I did it virtually.

By the time I was done with the novel, I felt pretty confident that I “knew” these roads and towns. But honestly? I didn’t know for a fact I was right. Places can look one way on Google Earth, but they can look completely different in person. And then there are subtle things that Google Earth could never capture, at least not yet: smells and other little details.

Last week, I happened to be driving across the country, following much of the exact same path that Russel and Otto took.

I couldn’t help but ask myself: How did I do?

Here’s the God’s honest truth: I didn’t make any specific errors. In fact, I was shocked by how much the roads and towns look like I described. It was kind of strange feeling like I’d been there before. I felt a little swell of smug pride.

But. Yes, there’s definitely a big but.

The longer I spent there, the more I absorbed a zillion little details that I wish I had included in the book: the way the pavement of the freeways looks like it’s been bleached white in the sun, the dryness of the dust in the air, the way some of the bridges rise up over the swamps like steep parabolas.

It’s true I included other specific details that I’m very proud of, things that hopefully make the book feel like it’s set in a very specific place, like it’s a real journey that these characters took (and I’m still very, very proud of the book itself).

That said, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t mind including these details that ground it in the actual place where it’s set.

Live and learn. The circumstances of this book were somewhat unique. Will I do it again, writing a book set in a place I’d never visited?

No, not if I can help it.


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