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Tips on preparing for a research trip for your novel

I’m back from my trip to Hilo, Hawaii for my novel. I spent five full days and two half days on the island, mostly on the Hilo (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 includes 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 setting in my novel.

Here are a few tips in preparing for the trip:

  1. Draft a day to day itinerary: I broke out my days by the hour and inserted information such as length of time it would take to walk or drive to a certain spot by Googling the time and distance from my hotel. Since most places closed at 5 pm, some even earlier, it was helpful in planning ahead so I did not miss a place/person.
  2. Plan B places to see and things to do: There may be a museum which is closed for renovation (of course you hope this is listed on their website or call ahead) or you can’t visit a site because of weather conditions. The Mauna Kea volcano summit was closed due to a strong winds so I visited the observation center only.
  3. Map out directions ahead of time: My biggest regret was not mapping out directions to one church I wanted to visit because I was planning on relying on my phone’s GPS. Unfortunately, the area I was driving to did not have any internet connection so I drove along the coastline for an hour and could not find the church, missing 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. The city or town may have a major event during a particular week and you may want to make sure you see that event during or, in the alternative, you may want to avoid the crowds if attending the event is not necessary to your book.
  5. Bring small gifts for your interviewees: I interviewed a number of people and they appreciated the token 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 in books. But after having done the trip, 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? Any additional tips?

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