Note: This article I wrote first appeared in "Vision: A Resource for Writers," in 2008. I thought it might be useful here.
"Write what you know." Writing teachers drill it. The writing magazines repeat it. Our mentors and writers groups won't let us forget it. But what if your story needs to go somewhere you haven't been? How do you write about a place you've never seen?
The best answer, of course, is to go there. Travel inspires fiction like nothing else. When you're in a new place, your senses are wide open, you enjoy new cultural experiences, and you get an appreciation for the planet that can add tremendous depth to your own world view and, thus, your writing. But most of us can't just pick up and go. It costs money, and we have obligations that make it difficult to jet-set around the globe. Plus, for some reason, the places we think of are usually exotic.
I've been fascinated with Iceland since I first read about it in a Hardy Boys book when I was about eight or nine. It's one of my dream destinations, but I've never been. So naturally I chose it as a major location for my first novel.
When writing about Iceland, I used a variety of techniques. First, I read everything I could get my hands on about the place: history, culture, literature (classical and modern), anything to give me a feel for the area and the people. Next, I looked at a lot of pictures. Descriptions based on pictures are filtered through what I learned while reading, so the culture influences the descriptions.
Then, I did something that some people might not think about. I contacted a professional photographer who has worked extensively in Iceland, but is not native. Not being native helps a person see things that natives don't necessarily see. I had questions about light at different times of day in the season when my story takes place, and I figured nobody pays attention to light like a photographer does.
While I had his attention, I asked about other things that a photographer might look at differently than a tourist or native. He was also nice enough to look over some of my descriptions and comment on them. Next, I had a native check my details to make sure they felt authentic. This helped me find errors in my description of a storm and helped validate that other things were correct. If you can convince a native, you've won the battle.
If possible, visit a restaurant that serves foods from the area you're writing about. Don't be afraid to be a little adventurous and try some authentic foods that might be outside your comfort zone. Short of traveling, there are few better ways to experience a culture's sensual richness.
I'm fortunate to live within easy driving distance of Spanish Fork, Utah, a town that was settled partly by a community of Icelandic immigrants, and was the setting for one of the classics of Icelandic literature, Paradise Reclaimed by Iceland's Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness. Every year, the descendants of these immigrants celebrate Thorrablot, the midwinter feast where Icelanders sample traditional foods that their ancestors ate to survive the isolation of a long Icelandic winter.
This gave me the chance to taste such delicacies as putrefied shark, pressed ram scrota, and singed sheep's head, and to surround myself in Icelandic culture for an evening. Trust me when I tell you there's no way to describe the "pleasure" of eating shark that has rotted underground for several months in its own body fluids without actually tasting it for yourself. Suffering through four pieces of that stuff--it took that many tries to be able to get over the shock enough to concentrate on tastes and textures--provided some authentic details that I would otherwise have missed.
Finally, remember that long descriptive passages are much less common in modern fiction than they used to be. You don't need to describe anything in exact detail. As with any research, you'll probably only use a little of what you learn. That little will be informed by the material you don't use, so you can make a little detail do a lot of work. The important thing is getting a sense of the place so your setting feels real and authentic. So climb aboard the research train, and have a pleasant journey.