Getting The Flavour

by Zoë Sharp

Last weekend we were in London, which is a fair old hike from where we live in the north-west of the country, but the more time I spend there, the more I rather like the place. I’m formulating ideas for a book that would be largely set there, so I wanted to just get a real feel for certain areas. I seem to need to do that when I’m looking for a location. A first visit gives me the atmosphere, then I’ll start writing, and a second visit ties down the details and the nitty-gritty.

I particularly wanted to visit Greenwich on this trip, so we took a river cruise from Tower Bridge and gently ambled down the Thames to Greenwich Pier. Greenwich itself is delightful, with a much more villagy feel than I was expecting, packed with small shops and pubs, and all kinds of exotic food in the market hall, not to mention the magnificence of the Naval College, and the rise of Greenwich Park up to the Royal Observatory, which not only contains the official dividing line between east and west, but also gives one of the best views in London, out over the Millennium Dome and across the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf. It’s only then you realise what a very flat city London is for the most part.

And much as you can look at pictures on Google Maps, or search the Internet, there’s often no substitute for actually going and seeing it for yourself – if only to prove that what you’re looking for is actually there. We’ve thought we’ve had some things pinned down on Internet satellite images recently that have turned out to be not quite where we expected them when we got there. I still think there’s value in the old saying of ‘write what you know’ but there’s even more value in writing things about which you’d like to know. It makes the research a lot more fun.

When I was writing THIRD STRIKE, the notes I’d made on a previous visit to New York City came in very useful for adding atmosphere to the book. I always have to remember that Charlie has a Brit perspective on places, and we certainly don’t have anywhere like Manhattan in the UK. I might not have used the detailed statue I found on the door of a church, but I think I did mention the old men playing chess in Washington Square Park.


Although photographs come in useful for research, they’re not the be-all and end-all for me. I’m not a happy-snap kind of person. I rarely if ever take a camera away on holiday with me because I want to see the place in full widescreen, rather than tunnelled down through the viewfinder of a camera. You miss so much that way. Besides, unless you take some time to set a shot up, and think about lighting and angles, you don’t really seem to capture the full majesty of whatever it is you’re photographing anyway.

I’d much rather make notes of an impression, a smell, a colour or a texture. The fact that the Boston Harbor Hotel had padded wallpaper in the lobby, the fact that the open-plan café in the Boston Aquarium made the lobby smell of fried fish.

It’s very easy to forget that we have a whole host of other senses, and the temperature of a place can anchor it as firmly as the look of it, as can the smell. We tend to forget that, living in the UK, where we get a kind of indeterminate mid-weather, neither desert hot nor Scandinavian cold, where America has every extreme in the same continent. Dazzling cold and oppressive heat can play as big a role in a story as any character, affecting the mood and actions of your protagonists.

What you really get in London, though, is a sense of jumbled up history, the brand new nestling alongside buildings that are hundreds of years old, churches scarred with shrapnel from the Second World War, and tiny crooked buildings that survived the plague and the Great Fire in the 1600s. There’s a real sense of something else lurking just beneath the surface, and the prospect of getting under the skin of the place is rather appealing.

So, my question is, what do you use to get to know a place you intend to use in a book? How do you capture the flavour of a street, a city, a village, a barren stretch of desert? Do you take pictures, hunt the Internet, make copious notes, or just go there and steep yourself in its atmosphere? And is there a line or phrase you’ve read or written that really summed up a place for you?

This week’s Word of the Week is palliard, meaning a professional beggar, a vagabond; a rogue or libertine, from the French paillard from paille straw, from the vagabond’s habit of sleeping on straw in barns.

23 thoughts on “Getting The Flavour

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    A lot to consider here, Z.

    I have to admit though, when you mentioned the photographs as far as setting up angle, worrying about light, etc. I can’t help but think that that’s mostly your professional self talking, though I could be wrong :-]

    As far as getting to know a place I want to use as a setting, nothing beats going there. Unfortunately, my budget doesn’t allow me to do this as often as I would like. I usually go with pictures, internet research, and if I’m lucky, I know someone who lives there.

    When I’m actually there ( a lot of the stuff I write takes place in Boston and I used to live there) I like to take in everything. The sights, sounds and smells. Particularly the smells. I was told once that sometimes, the sense of smell can evoke a more vivid memory than the other senses.

  2. Dana King

    I tend to use cities where I’ve lived, or at least spent q lot of time in my stories. That lets me get a general feel of the people, the weather, and (though I hate this word), the vibe. After that it’s Google maps and searches. There’s a wealth of information out there on the city of your choice, including web site that will tell you about places only the locals frequent. Those can be worth their weight in gold.

  3. Alli

    I find my stories choose their own settings and they always seem to be places where I have lived or know intimately from my travels. That way I can close my eyes and experience the smells, feelings, sights. And of course Google and travel books are a great way to research the finer details on some places if my mummy-brain messes with me.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – I absolutely have to visit the places I write about. There’s so much more than an image that comes from describing a location. There’s even more than our five senses, too. There’s often a mood, or an attitude that hovers in the air. It’s almost impossible to truly capture all the many faces of a city. I find that I have to settle on one perspective and stick to it, or else I’ll be writing the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I get a better sense of the mood and attitude of a place by interviewing its occupants. I’ve found precious little hues about San Francisco that I can brushstroke into my next novel, mainly from interviewing dozens of residents and hanging out in the North Beach cafes, restaurants, bars and police stations. I’ve encountered a "local" attitude to the rest of the world that I’ve never seen represented in film or fiction. Really, I could do this kind of research forever and ever, I friggin’ love it.

  5. RKCharron

    Hi šŸ™‚
    What lovely pictures.
    To create the atmosphere of a place, I use the senses: sight, smell, sound.
    I watch travel shows, google-maps/street-view, blogs, etc. to get the feel for a place.
    Thank you for a great, thought-provoking blog post.
    All the best,
    twitter: @RKCharron

  6. Louise Ure

    The sense of a place is incredibly important to me in my writing. Mostly I use my memory. And that’s the chickenhawk way of rationalizing why all my books have been set in Arizona.

  7. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Yes, it probably is my professional self talking, but a lot of photographs fail to really capture the essence of a place, and at the same time you miss out on a lot of that essence by messing around taking pictures of it. Photos are useful, but not as useful (for me) as making notes of odd little impressions.

    And you’re right – smell evokes a memory like nothing else ;-]

  8. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of the word ‘vibe’ either, but I know exactly what you mean. One city I used to live in had a very split personality between night and day, mainly because of all the bars and clubs there. During the day it was great, but at night it became that little bit more predatory, and you really had to watch your back when you were out – especially at chucking-out time.

    Only problem I’ve found with Internet maps is they’re often out of date – perhaps deliberately so. When I look at the Google Earth map for us, it’s still a field, and that was five years ago!

  9. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Allie

    "if my mummy-brain messes with me"?? I got this amazing ancient Egyptian image in my head when I read that …

    The plot demanding the location is always a better way around than coming up with an idea and thinking, ‘where shall I set this?’ I think. When I wrote FIRST DROP, it could only be set in Daytona Beach over the Spring Break weekend, so I not only had a Where, I had a When as well. And not only had I been there several times to cover that particular event, but we also had friends who lived in the area and so I could email them for odd little bits of extra information.

  10. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    I’m envious of your relatively close proximity to San Francisco! But I agree totally that there’s more than the look of the buildings or the smell of cut grass. You put your finger on it beautifully with your comment about the attittude of the people, I think.

    I’ve just finally got around to watching ‘Fargo’ and the particular attitude of the North Dakota people was what struck me most strongly from that film. Apart from just how weird the Coen brothers are, of course …

  11. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi RK

    Thank you ;-]

    Some of the pictures I trawled for, and others I took. Can’t get used to just taking one or two, though, so I end up taking hundreds. Probably another reason why I often travel without my camera. I keep thinking that if I ever stopped being a professional photographer, I’d probably take my camera with me more often, because it would become a hobby again.

    Not having TV, I haven’t seen any travel shows recently, but if they’re going the way of the rest of television, I’d be reluctant to trust that anything they showed me wasn’t concocted specially for the cameras! Blogs, though, and travel writing is a great way to pick up info. I’ve just been reading Dan Walsh’s book, THESE ARE THE DAYS THAT MUST HAPPEN TO YOU, about riding round Africa and South America on a motorcycle, and his view of the places he’s visited are just unsentimentally magical.

  12. R.J. Mangahas

    I was born in Fargo. But as you’ve met me, I don’t think you noticed a Fargo accent when I spoke (at least I hope you didn’t ;-]). And too be fair, Fargo now is MUCH different than the movie (and from when I lived there), it even surprised me some when I flew out there for my nephew’s wedding a couple of months ago.

  13. JT Ellison

    I’m planning a London research trip too – I think it’s good to visit the places you write about. I know too many people who just use the Internet to get the location’s background, and it can falls flat for me. You miss the realness of the place, the language, the smells, things that make your setting come alive. I try to use places I have visited, and if I haven’t, I take a trip to get the sense of things. Very helpful.

    The one exception I can think of is Diana Gabaldon, who write the first book in the Outlander series without ever visiting Scotland. I would have guessed that she lived there while writing, and she’d never been. That was fascinating!

  14. ClubPenguinCheats

    There’s a wealth of information out there on the city of your choice, including web site that will tell you about places only the locals frequent. Those can be worth their weight in gold.

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