My book is a fantasy novel and I wanted every location to feel rich with details to make it seem like a real place. Because I wanted to give my fantasy roots in reality, I had to make it seem like I knew what it’s like to live in a desert region, even though I had never been there. I knew I could only make up so much before the reader loses the ability to suspend their disbelief, so I had to do some research.
I come from the Midwest, where it snows and rains and the temperatures can reach in the triple digits, but it’s accompanied by humidity. We have tons of trees and grassy hills, not sand, sand dunes, and more sand. At the beginning, all I knew about deserts was that they are hot and sandy. I had a lot of work to do. The only way to write the desert sections of my novel with any sort of authenticity was to immerse myself in the desert as much as I could from my apartment in NYC.
Tip #1: Use Google. Google image search became my best friend. Not only could I see the desert, but I found images of villages and the people who live there. I used these images to give myself a visual and then I turned to texts and movies for the rest of the experience.
Tip #2: Movies and books are fun ways to do research. I watched Sahara (starring Humphrey Bogart), Lawrence of Arabia, and Walkabout, a brilliant Australian film about two children who must survive in the harsh outback after their father dies. Then I watched dozens of documentaries on television that dealt with deserts, from Biblical stories to lost desert civilizations. If it had anything to do with the desert, I watched it.
I researched the foods desert people eat, which crops they grow, and which plants thrive in arid conditions. Then I learned about the types of building materials they use, where they get water, and which animals are native to the desert. I learned how people travel across the desert, what signs to look for when searching for water, and realized that the desert was a much more interesting place than I had first assumed. I read graphic novels, like Habibi by Craig Thompson and Cairo by G. Willow Wilson, to see how others dealt with the desert in a visual and text medium.
Tip #3: Take notes from unexpected resources. What surprised me most during my research was the odd places where I found useful information. While reading a book about Alexander the Great for my own personal enjoyment, I learned that he traveled through the desert by following birds as they migrated from one oasis to the next. And in a show about ancient battles, I learned about caravans and how they survived for weeks at a time in the desert.
Tip #4: Put yourself there. Once all of the researchwais done I had to imagine myself in the desert in order to write about it. I thought about the sights, sounds, and smells that would overwhelm my senses if I was dropped on top of a sand dune in the middle of the desert. If I can’t imagine it, then neither will my reader.
Writing about a place I’ve never been is daunting, but it can be done. With a bit of research and a great imagination, no one will ever know that the only time I’ve ever been to the desert is when I write about it in my novel.
Image courtesy of wallpaperpassion.com