Doing research on the internet and by reading books is useful, but it doesn't tell me what my senses would.
By being in a place, things occur to me which otherwise wouldn't.
I went to the London Aquarium on Saturday. If I wanted to set a scene there, I could look at photos and read about it on the internet but I wouldn't pick up what I did when visiting. When you first go in you have to negotiate the shark walk, a glass walkway with sharks swimming below. This worried a lot of children including mine. I didn't like it either as there was a queue ahead meaning I had to hover over the glass walkway with a deep tank of water beneath it. Out of the vast selection of marine life at the Aquarium, my favourites were the jellyfish which glow in the dark and the seahorses which wrap their tails around the reeds. The eerie music reminiscent of a health spa and the darkness became irritating after a while. There was a stench of fish and the need to take my coat off in the tropical section and to put it back on in the penguin viewing ice cave. Of course if I was setting a scene in the Aquarium I wouldn't use all of this information. But it would help me to picture what the place is like and it's always good to know what a character is wearing. If I was writing a scene set in a different Aquarium, I could get away with using my visit to this one as research. But if I was writing a scene set in a City such as New York City I think the only way to make that scene come to life is to go there.
I worked in New York in January 2001. I was called into my boss' office on a Monday asking if I could go to New York on the Tuesday to clear a backlog and do some training. I hadn't been to America before and I was so excited. I stayed in a hotel on Park Avenue which was walking distance from the office on Madison Avenue.
Although I'd seen loads of films set in New York, being there felt different from what I'd expected. There was the reaction of Americans to my English accent and the need to use American words and phrases to make myself understood. I started saying, 'Can I get a latte...?' when ordering my morning coffee. Initially I was confused when Americans said 'Excuse me?' because they wanted me to repeat something.
I walked down Park Avenue a few times during a blizzard, watching the snow ploughs at work. The traffic continued as if there was no snow, the taxis slipping and sliding everywhere, beeping their horns at cars ahead. Heaps of snow lined the streets and the aroma of hot dogs and roasted chestnuts wafted from the Street Vendors' stalls.
When it wasn't snowing, the sky was blue and I needed to wear sunglasses. The sub-zero temperatures and starched hotel bed linen made my skin incredibly dry. I put on half a stone as the restaurant and takeaway portions were twice the size of those at home. The steaks were incredible. There was so much choice when ordering food in a restaurant - the different varieties of cheese on offer to go with a burger were astounding.
These are just a few of my observations of New York which I used for several scenes in my novel, 'The Grandson' (which I'm trying to get an agent for...). Again I didn't use all of this information when writing these scenes but it did help me to imagine what my characters lives were like so I could structure the scenes more effectively.
I'd be interested to know if you prefer to write about places you've visited or if you have any other comments.