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How to Write Fiction About a Town or City You've Never Visited

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

You don't need to spend a lot of money on a trip to learn about a town for your novel. In fact, there is a lot you can do from the comfort of your own home.

You don't need to spend a lot of money on a trip to learn about a town for your novel. In fact, there is a lot you can do from the comfort of your own home.

Most writers don't have a neverending bag of money. You may end up writing about a place in your novel that you have never visited, and it might be too expensive or inconvenient to take a trip there to study it.

This guide is meant to help you find resources for towns and places you can't easily visit. I want to push you in a direction where you can find free resources. You don't need a ton of money to research a distant place.

What Is a Town?

Before we get too far into this, let's first define what a town is versus a city. This definition isn't the same across the board. In the United States, the Census defines a town as an incorporated area with 5,000 or fewer residents. Midsize cities have around 5,000-10,000 residents, and big cities have more than 50,000 residents.

In some parts of the world, like the United Kingdom, landscape professionals use a term called "settlement hierarchy."

I've included a table below to give you an idea of what the settlement hierarchy looks like.

Settlement Hierarchy

Locality# of Residents

Gigalopolis/Gigacity

100 million

Megalopolis/Megacity

10 million

Conurbation/Global City

3-10 million

Metropolis/Municipality

1-3 million

Regiopolis/City

300k to 1 million

Prefecture/County

100,000-300,000

Town/Shire

10,000-100,000

Township/Subdistrict

1,000-10,000

Village/Tribe

150

Hamlet

Fewer than 100

Band

30-50

Whitman National Historic Site, a beautiful landscape in Walla Walla, Washington

Whitman National Historic Site, a beautiful landscape in Walla Walla, Washington

For the purpose of this guide, I'm going to be using Walla Walla, Washington, as an example. It has a population of about 31,700+ people, and it is considered a city in the United States. Walla Walla is located in southeastern Washington.

The largest metros near Walla Walla are Seattle, Spokane, Boise, and Portland. It has its own airport, but it's not a big hub.

It's Okay To Embellish a Little

If you're writing a fiction piece, you don't have to stay 100% authentic and accurate. You can invent stores, places, and the like. It might be smarter for copyright reasons to use different names for stores and local venues. It's a good idea to know the flair of a town, so you can make it authentic in your story, but not everything you put into your book has to exist in the real world; you can take some creative liberties.

I recommend trying to stay close to the history of a location. It would be awkward if the town you're writing about was involved in a major battle, and you completely rewrote history, changing who the victors were and the outcomes. If you have a really good reason for rewriting history, and it's intentional, you could work something like this in your favor.

For the most part, glaring historical inaccuracies can be big turnoffs for your readers. Don't let your story run away from you. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by veering too far off the beaten track.

Setting Is Your Characters' Playground

Towns are indicative of what types of characters will appear in your story. You would expect to find different people in Cheyenne, Wyoming, than you would in Kyoto, Japan. People do different things at gas stations than they do at weddings. You want the actions of your characters to be appropriate to their setting.

Towns are playgrounds for your characters. The locations of your story are what provide opportunities and challenges for your characters. If your characters spend a lot of time in a particular place, we should see them transform and mature. The setting has a direct impact on them. People grow up in different ways throughout the world, so pick wisely where you decide to base your novel.

Study the Weather

It's important to know the weather patterns of your new town. Some places have distinct seasons, while others are just hot and humid all year long. Climate is a big part of your setting. You should look up what kind of weather occurs in your desired location instead of assuming you know. Never assume as a writer! Look things up. Double-check your sources.

I would expect Walla Walla to be cold and rainy because it's in Washington, but that's not entirely the case.

Walla Walla is situated in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, so it doesn't get as much rainfall as you'd think. The city has hot summers; it's one of the northernmost cities in the U.S. to have such hot summers. The winters are cold but comparatively mild when looking at other cities at a similar latitude.

In fact, the summers are just as hot if not hotter than where I live in Missouri, but it definitely gets colder in Walla Walla.

Banff, AB, Canada

Banff, AB, Canada

Resources at Your Fingertips

You want to do as much research about your town or city as possible. You want your readers to see you as an authority—and to come off that way, you'll need to do your research.

Read about your town as much as you can. Know its history, significant dates, top tourist draws, native flora and fauna, and what you'd expect to find people eating on a Friday night.

Below I've listed some of the best ways you can quickly learn about a town.

Check Local News Websites

Writers need to be excellent Internet navigators. You need to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding information.

I highly recommend pulling up local news websites related to your town or city. Many of these websites also stream their newscasts. You can visit these websites for free and put the newscasts on your computer for you to watch or have as background noise.

There is a problem with local news that you need to know before you dive headfirst into research. A lot of corporations are buying up news stations and slashing jobs. Without enough staff to cover local news, more stations and newspapers are having to rely on national feeds and national news stories to fill up their slots. I know this because I worked at two different news stations that got bought up by corporations. In both scenarios, people were laid off, benefits were slashed, and more ridiculous rules were put in place.

So when you're perusing local news websites and trying to listen to streams, be forewarned that there is a good chance you'll run into dumping grounds for national news. Another trick: check to see if the local news sites in the area have a YouTube channel. Some stations upload their content to YouTube. Use this to your advantage.

If you're struggling to find news sites related to your area, I would recommend looking up what news DMA your location is in. Every year the DMA ranking list is updated based on population trends. Walla Walla is part of the Yakima-Pasco-Richland-Kennewick DMA, ranked about 115-120 on annual lists. This would be considered a small market. It serves about 256,000+ people. Big markets would be New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the likes.

Weather is one area you should study off local news websites. Weather will define what your characters wear and their priorities from season to season.

  • What time of the year is hardest for your town?
  • Is it in the path of annual wildfires?
  • Does it get enough snow to cover houses?
  • Do people worry about spring flooding?
  • Are sinkholes commonplace?

Visit the Library

Check your nearest library to see if it may have books or other resources about your novel's town. You can do a quick Google search for nearby libraries and use the library's website to pull up books and other materials.

Wikipedia Is Your Friend!

If you're struggling to find books from your library, I highly recommend using Wikipedia to help you with your research. Search your city and then scroll to the bottom of the page and check out the sources that are listed. There should be a variety of links for you to explore.

I encourage you to get lost in a Wikipedia wormhole. Start turning over rocks left and right. Don't have anything in particular that you want to find. Just dive in and start learning. Surfing Wikipedia will lead you to unexpected things like that Walla Walla has a day to celebrate Adam West, the original Batman.

Wikipedia is excellent if you need a crash course on a city. The site will usually list demographics, top industries in the area, notable people, history, geography, climate, and recreational activities. Don't dismiss how much Wikipedia can help you as a writer. (Just don't copy and paste things. Put things in your own words.)

Browse YouTube

People love to post homemade tourist videos of their area or videos of their road trips on YouTube. Washington is one of those states with endless natural wonders, so there are a plethora of Walla Walla videos. When I write, I like to put these videos on a computer or my TV. I like to watch these to get an idea of the city's layout and infrastructure and the way people speak.

Walla Walla is known for its growing wine industry, so there are a ton of videos about wine and restaurants. A few years ago, I planned a trip to Salem and Boston, and YouTube was one of the best ways for me to figure out what were the best things to do while on vacation. I love watching videos of people pretending to be tour guides or doing restaurant reviews. It's helpful, and more importantly, it's free.

Search Amazon Listings

Maybe your library doesn't have anything related to the town you're researching. Another place to peruse is Amazon. Type in the name of your town and see what comes up in the product listings. This can give you an idea of what matters in the town.

When I did a search of "Walla Walla," I came across books for restaurants, gardening, onions, prison stories, wineries, a history book of images, history books on Native Americans, and historic sites and markers.

I was actually surprised at how many books came up for onion seeds and sweet onions.

Podcasts

Check for podcasts about the town/city. Doing a quick Google search for Walla Walla I found:

  • Outside Walla Walla: a podcast about the Blue Mountains and Walla Walla Valley. The hosts talk about recreation, healthy lifestyles, and stewardship.
  • University Church Podcast: sermons from Walla Walla University Church.
  • Wine for Normal People: there is an episode on Walla Walla about growing up in the area and the growth of a particular wine business. (This episode is a total gem!) It appears this podcast has done more than one episode on the city.
  • Fruit Cellar Stories: an episode on Walla Walla—and yes, its wine.
  • High Crime: a true crime episode about Walla Walla. There is something called the Jake Bird hex.

Tourism Google Searches

One of the best Google searches you can do for your location is to simply type in "what to do in" and the location's name. Visit websites related to the city. This gives you a field of information to work with. Pretend you are planning a trip to this city. Where would you want to go? Some of the top sites that come up for Walla Walla are:

  • The Fort Walla Walla Museum
  • Kirkman House Museum
  • The Museum of Unnatural History
  • Whitman Mission National Historic Site
  • Frenchtown Historic Foundation
  • Multiple wineries, vineyards, cellars, and tasting rooms
  • Bennington Lake
  • Parks and other outdoor sites

It's a good idea to know the historical landmarks of an area. These places have remained for a reason. You want to know what are the big museums, religious sites, colleges, and parks.

Walla Walla has something noticeably special about it that draws in people, which I've already mentioned multiple times... wine. You could spend an entire week in this city and not make it through all the different wine locations. The frequency of wine in this city is way higher than in most places. That is something important to keep in mind if you're planning to use the town for a novel; just like if you were going to write about Denver, you'd expect there to be mentions of marijuana or bbq in Kansas City, cheese in Wisconsin, pizza in Chicago, and sweet tea in the South.

Look For City Tourist Websites or Directories

Often these sites will be called "Visit" and the name of the city. Sometimes you can message people on these websites for brochures and free materials to help with your research.

The Visit Walla Walla website promotes its big tourist draw: wine. But it also mentions bed and breakfasts, romantic getaways, campgrounds, things to do, everything food-related, outdoor activities, and an event calendar.

You should peek at your city's event calendar. It could help you develop some expectations about the area, what kind of music is popular, what people do for entertainment, and celebratory events like parades, ceremonies, and festivals.

Call Tourist Offices

Pick up the phone and start talking to someone. People in tourist offices are there to help. If you ask nicely, they might send some free resources your way or give you an idea of what to expect in the city. It's better to rely on someone who has years of experience with a town than someone who only spent a week there as a tourist.

Look For Reddit Threads

Many towns/cities have a Reddit thread. People often comment on the local flavor: the best food, hilarious and offbeat anchors, ghost stories, and complaints about obnoxious roads and ordinances.

You can get notifications for certain Reddit threads. This will keep you in the know about the goings-on of your novel town.

Explore College Websites

Educational websites can also give you clues about the regional culture. In Walla Walla, there are three college campuses: Walla Walla University, Walla Walla Community College, and Whitman College. Look through these websites and the programs they offer. Some websites might break down what the majority of students are studying. I think it's important to know whether people are moving to this area to learn about business or engineering. Some places are dominated by med students; other places have a plethora of film students.

Play With Google Maps

Look at satellite views of downtown areas. Check out traffic maps to see where traffic tends to build up. Look for places with heavy foot traffic, unusual spots on a map, and major highways.

It's a good idea to get an understanding of the general layout of a city. Popular roads could make for good focal points in your story.

Check Conservation Sites

Conservation websites can help you get an idea of what's in the area, the topography, the flora and fauna, and any big projects. It's a good idea to know the native species of an area, especially ones that are specific and not often found in other places.

When you're writing about a town or city, it's important to consider what people's homes look like. Every town has its own unique look.

When you're writing about a town or city, it's important to consider what people's homes look like. Every town has its own unique look.

Explore Zillow Listings

Don't expect that towns are going to look all the same from coast to coast. You want to get an idea of the aesthetics of an area, how much homes are selling for, and even neighborhood crime trends.

True to Washington prices, even Walla Walla, with its smaller population, has more expensive homes than where I live. I have a two-story house with five bedrooms, a basement, and a lake view. Walla Walla real estate isn't cheap, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon because word has gotten out that it's a wine haven.

There is every kind of house style available in Walla Walla and every color. There are several million-dollar homes listed. There are also several properties with as many acres as you'd ever want. I can't believe what some people are asking for in their homes! Some of the houses wouldn't sell for $150,000 where I live.

Bed & Breakfasts

It's also a good idea to check out bed & breakfasts in the area. What style do they have? Do you see the word "Victorian" over and over again? The style of bed & breakfasts can tell you a lot about what was once the heyday for a place. B&Bs are often old mansions, historic homes, and beautiful venues.

Check to see where the B&Bs are located, too; this can be indicative of popular hangout spots.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence