"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." E.L. Doctorow
Here are some things I've written about and never done or had happen to me: teaching in a prison, attending a dog training class, being in a commercial, being adopted, putting someone up for adoption, being a lesbian, being a vampire, being a man, being very, very rich and so on.
I am thinking about this because I've made a decision about something in the novel I am currently writing that requires a road trip. It's a relatively local road trip in Illinois so I think it will be worth it. I am not a fan of research mainly because my research has rarely led to a stronger project. In fact, research has frequently offered a wonderful opportunity to stray; to stray from plot, character, conflict and theme, stray from everything that matters while adding random details about a place or a food or a way to do a certain yoga move that does little to improve the story.
Years ago I decided to write a multi-generational novel about a WWI nurse who ends up in the trenches in France nursing soldiers. This story was my grandmother's story so I travelled from London where I was living to Northern Ireland where she had been born.
I travelled across the border in a bus, was menaced with a huge gun by an English soldier, stayed at a hotel with a video on the street to be sure no terrorists checked in, and wandered around a graveyard with many gravestones bearing my grandmother's maiden name.
The trip was fascinating and I wrote a huge chunk about the village and the soldiers and it didn't work at all. It sounded like a travelogue for visiting Northern Ireland so I cut it from the second draft. Now I'd probably use Google Earth and search the web for information. But I don't think the results would have been markedly different. The story itself, the characters, plot and conflict were not working. While setting can be hugely important, it remains second tier, most times, to these elements.
Research is very different these days. You can easily check to see whether a song you have someone listen to was actually played on the radio in the year your book is set. You can scatter popular references like breadcrumbs throughout your story but these markers may do nothing for your readers, leaving them lost and confused and annoyed by the random details. We live in a world of random details, constant documentation of meals, trips, family events, pet behavior, babies and diets and cups of coffee.
It is the choosing of detail, the meaning of place, and the clarity of purpose that marks essential information. Otherwise, no one cares.
The purpose of my Illinois road trip is simple. I am setting a scene in a strange monument, a shrine, and I feel like I need to go there. My character will be driving up to this unfamiliar landmark and I need to take that journey, to see what she might see and be able to honestly document the effect. If a place has a strong part in a piece of writing, going to visit is a good idea. However, don't deceive yourself into believing documentation takes the place of writing. Writing requires you do a hundred things at once and nothing. Writing tells everything and very little. Writing pushes the writer to the side and beckons the reader closer. Writing is its own destination.