Scooters zipping by the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi

Author Tip: Be Your Own Location Scout

I recently contributed to a fellow author’s blog on the topic of writing a book with a movie adaptation in mind, in honor of this week’s Sundance Film Festival. One strategy that I used, and that stood out in my mind as one of the most important, is exploring and experiencing real world settings to feature in your work. While scouting locations from exotic to familiar, brilliant to dingy, lavish to modest is essential for film production, many authors undervalue travel and exploration when breathing life into a novel.

While sometimes overlooked, this strategy is tried and true, and is a favorite tactic of many of the 20th Century’s biggest names in fiction. J.R.R. Tolkein famously used Mosely Bog, located in the woods behind his house, as inspiration for The Hobbit. C.S. Lewis was inspired to create the magical world of Narnia by a small town in Italy. F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with The Great Gatsby after a particularly raucous party at a lavish Long Island mansion.

In the case of my first novel, The Apology, travel was an invaluable tool to expand my horizons personally as an individual, and professionally as an author. It brought excitement, authenticity, emotion, and grit to my work, and set fire to my passion for writing. When it came time to flesh out the locations in the story, I had a distinct visual reference, using all five senses. The beauty of the landscapes, the smell of food wafting through crowded markets, the rumble of traffic or tranquil silence of a garden. Bringing those real-life experiences to the page transported me back, and I think has a strong impact on the experience of the reader.

Everyone’s process is different, but here are four places that left an indelible impression, and jumped onto the pages of The Apology:

Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi — Hanoi, Vietnam

via Wikimedia Commons

The centerpiece of our trip to Hanoi, and our protagonist, Christian Lindstrom’s, was the beautiful, historic Metropole Hotel. The hotel is a refuge of choice for visitors to Vietnam’s capital city, and has hosted presidents, movie stars, artists, and perhaps most appropriately, is a favorite spot of traveling writers. The hotel acted as a home base as we started to explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter, another site referenced in The Apology, but its charm and character grew on us, and it quickly became a home base for Christian as well, and a jumping-off point for the action in the book. Whether it was sitting at the hotel’s Bamboo Bar, lounging in the Charlie Chaplin suite (also the setting on the cover of the book), dining at the hotel’s Le Beaulieu restaurant, this quickly became a hub of inspiration, and many of Christian’s experiences in the book mirrored closely to our own at the Metropole.

The Tsukiji Fish Market — Tokyo, Japan

My wife & muse, Emily, and I exploring The Tsukiji Fish Market.

On the Japanese leg of our journey through The Apology, Emily and I found ourselves in the bustling Tsukiji Fish Market. The largest fish market in the world, it was crammed with wholesale buyers and sellers, curious tourists, diners, and, of course, a LOT of fish. There’s really no place like it, and the atmosphere perfectly captures the organized chaos of the world’s largest city. Wandering its labyrinths gave me a world of reference points to accurately capture the bustling city scenes in the book. The long-standing market is also situated on prime Tokyo real estate, and the city’s mission to move it in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics drives a point of tension in the plot of The Apology.

Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai — Hoi An, Vietnam

via imedagoze, flickr

While we were exploring every nook and cranny of Hoi An, the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai served as a completely relaxing, rejuvenating home away from home. It also became a prominent stop along Christian’s shooting schedule in Vietnam, and his accommodations in the book — from the private villa to the peaceful koi pond and pristine stretch of beach — were inspired by our stay there. A midnight dinner on the beach with my wife and muse, Emily, also made for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and helped me tap into the romantic elements of the characters’ relationships in the book.

I’ve traveled around the world chasing the stories of characters in The Apology. As a lover of travel and new experiences, it not only gave me a vast library of experiences to draw from, it made the book, its setting and its characters feel real to me. When I write about Hoi An, Hanoi, Tokyo and more, I’m not only completing a mechanical task, I’m whisked back there to the sights, the smells and the tastes.

As I start to look at inspiration for the sequel (more on this soon!), and the characters’ continued adventures around the world, the first priority is the setting. My characters and I will be jetting off to brand new locations, but as many authors prove, even exploring your own backyard can open the door to new worlds in your imagination.