Once upon a time many years ago, a fan asked Nora Roberts if there was any place in the world that she hadn't been to that she really wanted to see. Her response? Montana -- which shocked me, because I had just finished reading her Montana Sky, which was, of course, set in a very realistic-sounding Montana.
Diana Gabaldon wrote the first book of her phenomenal Outlander series, a good portion of which takes place in Scotland, without ever having traveled to the country.
Both of these authors readily admit that they're researchers. I consider myself a researcher too, but I want to do my research in person.
Several years ago, I decided to write a children's play about Orville and Wilbur Wright. I read and researched and wrote letters and talked to people and looked up stuff and checked out books from the library. But something was missing. So I talked my husband into making a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Even though Kill Devil Hills--where the first flight took place--bears very little resemblance to what Wilbur and Orville saw, there was still something special about being there. The wind, which was the key element in the success of their experiment, still blows steady and strong across the dunes. I came back with a new perspective, and I knew I had found the mysterious element that was missing. The play was a semi-finalist in a national competition.
On the same trip, I visited the restored Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station. The men who lived in this building were part of the forerunner of the U.S. Coastguard Service and risked their lives to save sailors whose ships foundered on the dangerous shoals. I wandered through the rooms of the venerable building, inhaling the pungent fragrances of varnish and paint, peering out the bubbled glass windowpanes, listening to the surf pound, and letting my imagination take it all in.
I came back from that trip with more story ideas than I'll ever use.
I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to reseach a place. The methods that Nora and Diana use certainly work for them. But me? Well, I've just gotta be there.
How about you? Are you a stay-at-home researcher or a gotta-go researcher?