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 some knowledge of the feel of 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 Maps allows one to add multiple locations and varied methods of transportation. Since most places closed at 5 pm, some even earlier, it was helpful to plan 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 in a particular location in case the site you planned to visit is closed due to a holiday or construction. For instance, a museum may be closed for renovation (of course you hope this information is listed on their website) or weather conditions make visiting a site impossible. When I visited, 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 doing an offline map for 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 stop completely. If I had uploaded the directions on my phone beforehand, this wouldn’t have happened.
  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 would want to make sure you see that event or, in the alternative, you may want to avoid the crowds and change your visit to a less busy time. Big events usually means higher prices and possible unavailability of hotel rooms and/or 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 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.