Writing about places we can’t personally visit

Please welcome Karen Mann. I’m so happy to have her with us today because I very much resonate with her topic. When I was writing my novel I couldn’t travel to Poland or have first-hand knowledge of the time-period in which  my novel takes place – the early 1900s. Karen’s novel, The Woman of La Mancha, takes place in the sixteenth century Spain. Here’s what she did instead of personally visiting Spain and having a direct experience of the time period she writes about.


When You Can’t Do Seat Research, Then What?

By Karen Mann

Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife, talks about doing seat research for her historical novels. Sit where your characters sat, live where your characters lived, and you can write about how it smells, looks, sounds, tastes, and feels.

But what if you can’t do that? When writing my novel The Woman of La Mancha, I was unable to go to Spain or even more specifically, I was unable to go to sixteenth-century Spain, yet my readers tell me I have made that time period come alive for them. How was I able to do that?

I started by reading one book about the time period. In my case, the book was about King Philip II of Spain. From that beginning, I knew the kinds of things I needed to research.

I spent a weekend at the Indiana University library or you could spend a weekend doing deep research on the Internet. Make copies. Bookmark links. Go back and read it all.

I read books about sixteenth-century clothing, homes, furniture, hunting, professions, topography, and more. Sometimes I found helpful books like Life in the Sixteenth Century. Other books just had a chapter that was helpful. Some books were more specific, like how children were treated. I learned about the class system, farming, and food preparation. I found out about illnesses and healing with herbs. I read about plagues, geography, and populations in various cities. I discovered the tenets of chivalry and read about the decline of it. I read literature from that time, found out about authors and dramatists, learned about musical instruments and music, and read about oil painting and female artists. I read about slavery in Spain, the Inquisition, the treatment of Jews and Muslims. I read the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the book that governed the Catholic Church.

I assimilated everything. Nothing went to waste. It was like learning a foreign language where when you become fluent, you don’t have to translate in your mind. It was as if I were sitting there while I wrote.

What is the key to incorporating the information in your writing? Find the most interesting tidbits. Bring them alive through evoking the senses or recreating specific and vivid scenes. Even if it were only for one sentence, a detail in one scene, I wrote about it all. Research informs your writing. Use it. Bring life to your writing.


karenmannphoto-2About the Author: Karen Mann is the author of The Woman of La Mancha and The Saved Man. She is the co-founder and Administrative Director of the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Spalding University (www.spalding.edu/mfa) and managing editor of The Louisville Review, a national literary magazine since 1976 (www.louisvillereview.org). Having lived in Indiana most of her life, she now lives in San Jose, California. See more about her books at www.karenmannwrites.com.


About The Woman of La Mancha: The Woman of La Mancha, a companion book to Don Quixote, tells the woman’s story of Don Quixote by recounting the story of the girl he called Dulcinea, the woman he loved from afar.

It’s 1583. An eleven-year-old girl wakes in the back of a cart. She has lost her memory and is taken in by a kindly farm family in La Mancha. She adopts the name Aldonza. She doesn’t speak for quite some time. Once she speaks, there is a family member who is jealous of her and causes a good deal of trouble, even causing her to be forced to leave La Mancha in tragic circumstances. Having to create a new life in a new location and still unaware of her birth family, she adopts the name Dulcinea and moves in the circles of nobility. While seeking her identity, she becomes the consort of wealthy men, finds reason to disguise herself as a man, and learns herbal healing to help others.

There is a parallel story of a young man, Don Christopher, a knight of King Philip and the betrothed of the girl, who sets off on with a young squire, Sancho, to find the girl. Christopher’s adventures take them across Spain and force him to grow up. Does he continue the quest to find his betrothed or marry another and break the contract with the king.

Both young people have many experiences and grow up before the readers’ eyes. Floating in and out of each other’s paths as they travel around Spain, will they eventually find each other and be together?


Karen and I would love to hear from you. What did you do when you wrote about a place or a time period you could not experience personally?






  1. Madeline, thank you so much for having me as a guest blogger. I really appreciate it! Karen

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