I’ve recently been editing a novel of mine, which is set in the Himalayas at the end of the eighteenth century. I did a great deal of research for it — but I didn’t do any travelling. I’ve been musing about this: is it a problem? Obviously I couldn’t travel back in time, to make that side of it authentic, but would it have been a better novel if I’d somehow found the means to make the lengthy and expensive journey to where it’s set? Do other writers see this as a problem?
When I first read Mal Peet’s debut novel, Keeper, I was seriously impressed. It’s about football, not a topic that usually interests me in the slightest. But this novel: ah, this was something special.
It’s set in an unspecified South American country. A sports journalist, Faustino, is interviewing the world’s greatest goalkeeper: El Gato, the Cat. El Gato begins to speak about his childhood as the son of a logger, in a small town deep in the jungle. He explains that he was so bad at football that the other boys refused to let him join in their daily games. So, bored with his empty afternoons, he wandered off into the jungle. There he encountered the ghostly Keeper, who haunted a football pitch hidden deep in the jungle. And the Keeper began to teach him how to play.
It’s a mesmerising tale: a ghost story as much as a football story. And the sense of the luxuriant, invasive, enveloping jungle is integral to the intensity and focus of the narrative:
I was just as scared of the forest as everyone else was. Things I could not see would scuttle away from my feet. Things would crash through the leaves above my head. Sometimes I would cry aloud in fright. And the forest has a smell too, a sort of thick, sweet, rotten smell that makes the air difficult to breathe. The light is dim and green. Where the sun does break through, its light is broken up by the leaves into patches of brightness and shadow so that it’s often hard to make out the shape of things.
Mal Peet creates a vivid picture of the logging town, too, and of what it’s like to work in the logging camp. Every part of the setting feels utterly convincing. And yet at the time of writing Keeper, he had never been to South America.
I know this because I admired the book so much that I decided to email him, via the publisher we then shared, and tell him so. I asked him if he had visited South America to research the setting, and he said no, he hadn’t, though he had been since. He subsequently wrote two more South American novels featuring Faustino, and then went on to produce a series of prizewinning books, all utterly different from each other, before dying, much too young, in 2015. His books were all marvellous, but for me, Keeper is the gem: it’s so completely focused and true to how you feel it was meant to be.
At the other end of the scale is Michelle Paver, author of the successful series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, set in the Stone Age. This features a boy called Torak, his wolf, and his friend Renn. To research these books, Paver travelled far and wide and did some very dangerous things. Her Amazon page notes some of them: ‘Michelle has traveled to Finland, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, Arctic Canada, and the Carpathian Mountains. She has slept on reindeer skins, swum with wild killer whales, and gotten nose to nose with polar bears — and, of course, wolves.’ In a YouTube video, she explains her compulsion to experience whatever she writes about: ‘I wanted to make the story as real as possible… of course I had to get to know wolves… Everything [Torak] experiences, I wanted to try to experience.’
Of course, she couldn’t experience life exactly as a Stone Age boy would have done; she did her best, but it was her imagination that had to fill the gap.
Similarly, for Dark Matter, her chilling (in both senses of the word) ghost story for adults, she travelled to the Arctic to experience the polar night. So for instance, she can tell you that because of the reflection from the snow, you can read a newspaper there by the light of the moon.
But could she not have found out what she needed to know while sitting at her desk and using the internet? Well, perhaps. But, unusually in this day and age, Paver prefers not to use the internet. It wouldn’t be good enough, in her view. To explain why, she describes how, long before she wrote Chronicles, she was hiking alone in a North American wilderness, and came across a bear with her two cubs. Nervously, she tried singing to the bear. Perhaps she chose the wrong song. The bear wasn’t impressed, and came closer. At this point she realised that it was quite possibly going to kill her. She was terrified: ‘My mind went white,’ she said. Years later, she used this image to describe Torak’s fear in a similar situation; she feels she would not have been able to describe his fear so accurately had she not experienced a very similar situation herself.
So why does one writer feel it is necessary to experience whatever he or she is going to put his or her characters through, while another is content to stay at home and let her his or her imagination do the travelling? (With, in either case, a good deal of help from research.) There are practical reasons, of course. Money is one. Not everyone can afford to jet off to far-flung places. Ties are another: if you have a family, commitments, dependents, it may not be easy to find the time you need to travel. Or you might not be brave enough. A few years ago, I became fascinated by accounts I’d read of the astonishing courage and daring of plant hunters of the past; people at least as brave – and bonkers – as Indiana Jones: people who ventured into jungles, up mountains, even to continents which had been hitherto unknown to the west, in search not of archaeological wonders but of botanical ones.
I decided to write a book for children about one such expedition. It would be to the Himalayas. I had no commission for the book, and I didn’t have money to spare to go on my own expedition. Moreover, I have to confess that I’m not desperately fit, and I have no head for heights. The only way I was going to hack my way through jungles, totter across vertiginous rope bridges and climb precipitous mountain paths was by writing about them. So I stayed safely at home and read voraciously: journals of plant hunters, histories of India, accounts of the naming of plants and so on. I sent off for maps and pored over them. I watched documentaries about the Himalayas and searched out articles. And I wrote the book, experiencing along with my young hero (who also found he had no head for heights) the vicissitudes of jungle life – such as leeches and giant spiders and the stifling heat – and the glories: a distant view of majestic ice-clad mountains, a sudden grove of rhododendrons, the green-gold gaze of a tiger.
However, there is no substitute for visiting the places where your story is set, if it’s possible to do so. When I wrote a book about Alfred the Great, it was easy to walk in his steps. Fortunately, many of the places associated with him – Athelney, on the Somerset Levels, Edington, where he fought a crucial battle against Guthrum, Wayland’s Smithy, not far from the site of another significant battle – have not changed that much in eleven hundred years. This may not always be the case when you visit a place where a novel is set; if it takes place in the past, the land or cityscape may well have changed so much that it no longer forms a useful reference point. But with this novel, I was lucky. And the novel would have been a very different one if it hadn’t been soaked in the sights, sounds, scents and atmosphere of Wessex.
Still, that’s not to say that a writer who didn’t have the opportunity to visit Wessex, might not write a successful novel about Alfred. Bernard Cornwell has done exactly that, in his series about the world of Alfred. I don’t know whether he spent much time visiting relevant places or not; he certainly didn’t have the advantage of living on the doorstep, as I do – he is British, but now lives in America – but he clearly didn’t allow that to hold him back.
No, it’s not essential to go to the places which form the setting for your novel. It may not even make your book better if you do: I think that Keeper is actually a better book than the two subsequent South American novels Mal Peet wrote after he’d visited the continent. But if you can manage it, why not? At best, you’ll write a better book. And at worst, you’ll have had a whole host of new experiences.