I just spent five full days and two half days in Hilo, Hawaii, which is located on the Eastern side of the island. Though I would have liked to have stayed through a Sunday so I could have attended a church service (my novel’s setting is in a church in Hilo), I would say the experience provided me with a depth and interest in the island so that I am better able to write about the novel’s setting.

Here are a few tips in preparing for a research trip for your novel:

  1. Draft a day to day itinerary: I used an excel spreadsheet to break out my days by the hour and inserted information such as the length of time it would take to walk or drive to a certain spot. Google Map’s feature in allowing you to add multiple locations and method of transportation is very helpful. Since most places closed at 5 pm, some even earlier, it was helpful in planning ahead so I did not miss an appointment or opportunity to visit a place.
  2. Plan B places to see and things to do: Have a list of alternative places to visit if the site you planned to visit is closed. There may be a museum closed for renovation (of course you hope this is listed on their website or you can call ahead) or weather conditions make visiting a site impossible. The Mauna Kea volcano summit was closed due to a strong winds so I only had the opportunity to visit the observation center.
  3. Map out directions ahead of time: My biggest regret on this trip was not mapping out directions to one church I wanted to visit because I had planned to rely on my phone’s GPS, which required having network service. The area I was driving to did not have any network connection so I drove along the coastline for an hour and could not find the church, missing the visit to it completely. If I had uploaded the directions on my phone beforehand, it would have been saved and I could have looked at the directions offline.
  4. Look up the calendar of events of the location / setting of your novel before booking the trip. Your destination could be having a major event during your visit and you may want to make sure you see that event or, in the alternative, you may want to avoid the crowds and change your visit to another time. Big events obviously means the likelihood of more expensive or unavailable hotel rooms and car rentals.
  5. Bring small gifts for your interviewees: I interviewed a number of people and they appreciated my gift of a box of chocolates as a thank you for their time. Of course, I followed up with a hand-written thank you note as well.

Before the trip, I felt a little guilty spending the money on traveling to Hilo when I could have found a lot if information online and at the library. However, it was one of the best decisions I made for this novel. I bought books at a local bookstore which cannot be found online. I met locals who provided input on the novel and its characters. I met locals who had a strong knowledge and interest of the town, many of whom I feel comfortable calling on for advice and maybe reading a completed draft of my novel.

Have you ever traveled for research? Please leave a comment for any additional suggestions.