In our modern age, it’s possible to research what we need for our stories online. You can even access original documents online, so why would we want to go to the expense and time to travel somewhere for research? Don’t get me wrong: I love travel. But it is expensive and we can’t always get time off work or whatever to do it.
On a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I discovered just how important actually being in a location is to invoking that place.
Sure, there is a lot of intellectual stuff you can get online. But there is also a lot of intangible stuff that you can’t understand without the experience.
Let’s say, for example, that I want to write a novel set in 1700s South Carolina. (Hmm, not a bad idea.) I can research online just how big a plantation was, how many slaves they had, the size of the windows, the crops they grew, and the style of the gardens.
What I can’t get a feel for without going there are the real telling details that bring the setting and the culture to life. Like the smell of the tidal, saltwater rivers. Or the sound an alligator makes slicing through the water. Or just how deep the ditch is that kept the livestock from going down too close to the river’s edge. How many steps did it take to get from the closest slave cabin to the main house? How many seats were in the privy?
I can read about water transportation. But I cannot get a sense from reading how long the stroll from the river to the main house is. How much more I can know from walking it myself. The smell of jasmine, the feel of crumbled oyster shells under my feet, and the colors of the china are things I can only really grasp for myself.
I had the good fortune while in Charleston to get a back room view of the Charleston Museum—the oldest museum in the country. The curator of textiles and clothing showed us many gowns and shoes and other oddities like smoking hats and designer dresses from the 1800s. We saw firsthand a filmy, net-like muslin dress from the Regency era. Quite risqué really. And hardly warm enough for wintertime. What does that tell me about the people who wore it? What can my imagination do with that information?
I’m a visual person, so to see something in person has far more impact on me than if I merely read it online.
Plus, it’s a whole lot more fun to travel. I think both methods have their place. And now, I think I might just plot out my book for 18th century South Carolina. Because I know just how far down the river you can see from Boone Hall plantation. And I know the layout of the kitchen house at the Heyward home in Charleston. I know how that portrait of George Washington came to be in the City Council chambers.