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?

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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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