Is it necessary for an author to have visited the settings of her novels?

Salammbo Alphonse Mucha

Salammbo Alphonse Mucha

It was at Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar…

The story has it that Flaubert, as soon as he had written the opening words to his historical novel Salammbô, threw down his pen in frustration and exclaimed “I have to go there!”

What is sure is that he traveled to Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, to become familiar with the setting of his new novel. Salammbô was published in 1862, after four years of painstaking historical and archeological research, much of it on site, and many rewrites (does it sound familiar?)

I don’t mean to compare myself to the author of Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale, but I can imagine how he felt. It goes beyond mere physical knowledge of the settings of my novels: I need an emotional connection to these places. They become mine.

Yes, I am very fortunate: the streets of Paris, the salons of Versailles, the mountains of Auvergne are mine. I possess them because they possess me. Otherwise I couldn’t take my readers there.

As historical novelists, we live in the past no less than the present. What better way to measure the passage of time than to stand, in the 21st century, on the embankments of the Seine, feeling, smelling the dampness of the river, taking in the beauty of it, and reflecting on how the same place looked hundreds of years ago?


Fellow novelists Michelle Moran, Tess Geritsen, India Egdhill and Diana Gabaldon also answer the same question: compare our answers here.

What about you: how do you feel about it, as a writer or reader?

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10 Comments to “Is it necessary for an author to have visited the settings of her novels?”

  1. Beef Jerky says:

    In the same way the reader never actually is required to visit the places in the novels, it is not necessary for the writer to either. Provided enough research is done, it shouldn’t be necessary, but may be a great way to gain inspiration.

  2. I think it is really important to visit. So that the author can describe with feelings what the place looks like. I like “The Da Vinci Code” Book, because the description of the places is accurate and i can imagine myself transporting to the place.

  3. Catherine, what a great topic for discussion. I really don’t know how it works in the adult market, but in the children’s industry authors (and especially illustrators) are expected to visit the locations in their books.

    I was shocked to learn Elizabeth Kostova did not leave the US when doing her research for the Historian. Her descriptions really feel like you are right there. So in her case, I don’t think it hurt her writing.

    But I can see how it would require a lot of creativity to fill in the gaps.

  4. Sheramy says:

    Maybe not *necessary* but *highly desirable* to visit the places when possible (and if they still exist). When I began writing my story, I hadn’t been to Provence, and I felt I could not do it justice until I did–although I could get just about everything I needed from secondary sources. Some of the original locations in Arles pertaining to van Gogh no longer exist, but I was still able to get a feel of the town and its people. Many details in the mss were not there before the trip, little things I wouldn’t have thought about beforehand. And in Saint-Remy, seeing the way the light hit the Alpilles mountains, feeling the peace of the hospital where van Gogh stayed…things like that can’t come from a book or wikipedia. Van Gogh himself preferred to start from something ‘real’ in nature, then make it his own. I discovered that’s what I like to do, too.

    That being said, I’ve read books where I was incredibly convinced by the setting, only to learn the author had never been there! I suppose it really does depend on each writer.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    It may depend on the skill (and imagination) of the writer, Cinderella. I just don’t think I could pull it off myself.

  6. Cinderella says:

    Haven’t read the article yet, but from a reader’s perspective I think it’s not necessary for the author to have visited the site. The imagination is a different place.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Julianne – Maybe you don’t travel as much as you would like nowadays, but I am sure you know your settings very well. And thanks for the heads up on Michelle’s interview. I will post a link here!

  8. Thanks for the link, Catherine! It was interesting to hear everyone’s opinion, especially since I’m not able to travel as much as I would like. It’s true that the Internet has made a tremendous difference in what one can find and see during research.

    As for Michelle’s new book: I’ll be posting an interview with the author this Monday and a review of the novel, which I was lucky enough to get to read early, on Tuesday. I invite all your readers to stop by and read about this wonderful new novel.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Elena, sometimes intuition, and research, can make up for the lack of physical connection, but it takes an outstanding writer to pull this feat. I am thinking of Tournier’s Le Roi des Aulnes (“The Elder King”) and his recreation of Eastern Prussia under the Nazi regime. I will have to check whether it was translated into English. Beautiful – and very disturbing – novel.

  10. Thanks for linking to such a fascinating discussion, Catherine! I do think it depends upon the author. For me, I have found that being physically present in the places where my characters lived to be invaluable for gaining insights into their psyches. However, I also understand that in some cases it might be impossible to go to every single place in the story. In that case, imagination, based upon solid research, must take over.

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