The sense of place
Online searches provide much detailed information about a place: layout, history, buildings and objects of interest, entertainments; and in the case of a university town or city, data about university life and organisation. There are maps, there are photographs, there are accolades. But if you intend to set part of your story in that place, no such wealth of detail is sufficient. You have to get your feet on the ground. You have to experience the location directly, see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, otherwise it won’t come alive in your writing.
This is why I’ve been able to attack the novel with renewed vigour since I returned from Durham. I’m not putting much description of Durham or its university into the text, but I’m adding occasional sentences, phrases, even particular words, that I wouldn’t have been able to supply if I hadn’t made the visit. The place is now clear and vivid in my mind, so I’ll be able to evoke appropriate images for the reader: a real live Durham for people who know the city, a plausibly imagined one for those who don’t.
It’s the same principle as the “back-story”. You have to know more about your characters than you ever put in the novel, otherwise their thoughts and actions won’t make sense to you and therefore not to the reader. Without back-stories, your characters don’t live. Without genuine acquaintance with location, neither do your settings.
And research of this sort is fun! My visit to Durham was a delightful short holiday, even though it was ‘work’. When I’ve completed the first draft of this book – by the end of the present calendar year, I hope – I shall go again, purely in the interests of recreation. It’s a lovely city.