In the film industry the idea of going on location is common. Likewise, in painting and other visual arts as well the artist frequently will go on location to create a work or otherwise directly reference real world locales. The advantages of this are a level of detail and depth that doesn’t often evolve from a purely fabricated set.
Writers often go on location as well although people don’t usually think about it in these terms. Many of my stories have settings that are based on specific locales, and although I don’t actually write the stories in those places, I will sometimes make a trip there to get a sense of the place before writing descriptive scenes. Usually I am looking for specific sensations or images that speak to me as evoking the setting I am trying to create. Often I discover unexpected things that find their way into a story.
My story “Crawlspace” is about a man who is obsessed with the idea that something is in the crawlspace underneath his house. At some point while writing this story I put some grubby clothes on, grabbed a flashlight and descended into the dark hole underneath my own house for some descriptive, atmospheric fuel. It wasn’t nearly as scary as it is in the story but while down there I tried to imagine the kind of dread that the story’s character Michael feels. One interesting detail I used was that although there were cobwebs everywhere, I saw no spiders. In the story this small detail takes on an ominous tone.
I based the descriptions of University Hall in “The Menace of Dupere” on Science Hall at the University of Wisconsin. I made several trips into old growth forests in Oregon for my story “Old Growth,” and studied some Japanese gardens for “A Thing Worth Dying For.”
Even if I have a good idea of how I imagine a particular setting, going on location can often add valuable insight to those ideas. Just as in film, the place doesn’t have to be exactly what you are going to portray. Depending on what angle you shoot it from, how you light it, and what details you highlight, you can create an entirely original and atmospheric setting. You can even take bits and pieces from different locations. It’s a great way to add new depth to your settings.