How to write about places you’ve never been to – Guest Post by Stuart White

Tales from the Falkland Islands…and writing research tips!

I am proud to present a guest post by my friend and mentor, Stuart White. Please read his impressive biography HERE.

Real Research: Writing about faraway places, part 2

A guest post by Stuart White


By Stuart White

Author – Stuart White

Last week I stressed the importance of trying to visit a place where your story is set.

And I could almost hear the cries of, “OK for you buddy, but I’ve got twelve bucks to last me the week and two kids to feed. I can hardly make rent, let alone get on a plane to Paris.”

And you’ve got a valid point. But I think I did say ‘If you can get there.’

So this week I’m going to give you some tips of how to get the feel and smell and sense of a place, despite the fact you haven’t got the moolah to get there.

But first to tie up the loose threads of last post, when I described my trip to South America and the Falklands Islands to do research on my script ‘Death at Sea.’

Another aspect of that ‘research’ was a practical one. Death at Sea has a show reel – a sort of five-minute filmed teaser outlining what the project is. At the moment it consists of some old newsreel film of the conflicts and still pictures of the ships and the protagonists.

So it was suggested it might be an idea to get some current footage of the area in which our story took place and scenes are set – like shots of Montevideo, where British and German spies recruited locals in a deadly cloak and dagger game to uncover secrets about the other nation’s fleets.

Like the Falklands, showing the harbor from which the British fleet fired its first shots, then the actual waters the battle took place.

Likewise off Coronel, south of Valparaiso and the port itself where several scenes are set – including a banquet at which the German admiral was honored.

So with video camera and tripod in hand, I filmed like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice…out at dawn doing sunrises…then sunsets…the ship pitching and swaying, spray shooting over the bows…and the stormy seas in which brave men died.

When that goes to the director he hopes to cut it into the original show reel, including some voice-over commentaries from yours truly.

But now back to research and how to make yours effective without you jet-setting around the world.

 In 2003 I wrote a novel called The Valhalla Secret (since become an optioned screenplay) which is set in the final days of Berlin in 1945 as Soviet troops capture the German capital.

I had been to Berlin and walked its streets and had three or four excellent books on the subject to aid my research. But I wasn’t born when the Nazis were defeated, so short of a time machine I was stuck as for the real atmosphere of the period.

What I needed was someone who’d been there then; a living witness. And by good fate and chance, I found one in my condo block in Los Angeles.

The German-born woman’s name was Ursula and she’d been fourteen years old in 1945. She agreed to talk to me.

Her eyes were haunted as she recounted the shelling; women hit by shrapnel as they stood in line to get water from a stand-pipe. The hunger and her mother desperately carving meat from a just-killed horse.

The ‘hurra-hurra’ cries of the Russian front-line soldiers, and the screams of women being raped in their homes. Ursula’s account wasn’t unique, my books contained such accounts, but hearing her account made it real for me, and I believe contributed to the later scenes I wrote.

So…your novel is set in Paris, or Venice, or New York. First off try to find someone who is from there, has lived there or visited a lot. Then just talk to them about the place.

Ask them about smells? What does Paris smell like in the spring or fall? Do the drains still whiff pungently? (They used to when I first went there).

Is there the pungent aroma of Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes? Does the Metro still have a lingering scent of steel and blast furnace as it did, or have the new luxurious cushioned carriages eliminated that?

What do Parisians eat for breakfast – croissants? (More likely a chunk of bread without butter – and strong, bitter coffee).

Do French women still say “Ooh-la-la…” and do French men struggling with English say, “It ees, ‘ow you say, ze…”

The former is – incredibly  – true, they do. The latter is a cliché to be avoided like the plague (forgive the satire).

What newspaper would a Parisian sit reading in a café – Le Monde the cerebral world-respected journal? In my view he’s more likely to read Le Figaro. (As in New York you’d more likely see someone reading the Daily News than the New York Times).

See what I’m getting at? Try to get outside the kind of tourist brochure cliché of Paris and the French people (or any city) and inside the reality.

Do French people always say “Bonjour’ and “Bonsoir” on greeting you? Yes, they do. It’s almost compulsory. And you’re supposed to say it too. Don’t, and they’ll say you are ‘mal eleve.’ Badly brought up.

I’m not going to go on about what I think the real Paris is, but you can find it out from people who’ve lived there or visited.

And from movies; watch French movies, older ones if your story is set some while ago, and modern ones if it’s set there now. Get a feel for the rhythm of Parisian (or French) life.

Let the images soak in until you’re absorbing the culture the mode of living. Do Frenchmen still wear berets? Well, only the older ones. Do all French people smoke? It’s not as bad as Tokyo or Eastern Europe and smoking is banned in all public places, but smoking is ubiquitous in public spaces, especially in Paris.

As for Paris, so to for Venice, or New York, or Cleveland – or indeed any town or location you can’t visit. And if your novel is set in a time that no-one can possibly be alive now, then read first-hand accounts, even old travel books. It’s astonishing what information you can turn up.

Do anything and everything you can to make that place – and time – come alive.

Another incredible source of information on past places and times are reproductions of newspapers of that period. They are quite commonplace now and yield masses of information about prices (from the advertisements) and the minutiae of daily life.

French WW2 magazine

I have sets of French newspapers from World War Two which were invaluable in writing a script called, ‘To The Very Gates’ about a woman arrested in Vichy France in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz.

French newspapers WW2

Look for the little, apparently inconsequential things. I was once researching the life of King George the Third, the man who ‘lost America’, That is, the American Revolution happened on his watch.

Everyone knows that George suffered periods of insanity (caused by a condition called porphyria) and films have been made of it like, “The Madness of King George.”

But reading a book on the American Revolution I came across a little known fact about King George that I one day hope to use.

He wasn’t terribly eclectically educated, but when caught out on something he didn’t know, he would bluff and affect to think it strange.

Some American colonists were describing a new agricultural development to him. The King not having the faintest idea what they were talking about, but not wishing – as he saw it – to show his ignorance, stroked his chin, pulled a puzzled face, and said, “Well that’s very strange. Very strange indeed.”

The colonists were baffled and embarrassed as well they might be. And I swear that one day that line is going into something I write.

So from Gitanes to George, from Berlin to regal bafflement, there’s always something you can add to your script by off-the-grid research.

Good hunting!


Real Research: Writing about faraway places – Guest Post by Stuart White


Tales from the Falkland Islands…and writing research tips!

I am proud to present a guest post by my friend and mentor, Stuart White. Please read his impressive biography HERE.

Real Research: Writing about faraway places

A guest post by Stuart White

I’ve been up since dawn and I’m peering across a grim, rain-swept bay to a small mist-shrouded harbor as a ship’s tiny tender battles against the buffeting gale towards the shore.

And not for the first time in my travelling-writing life I wonder,

“What the hell am I doing here?”

“Here” in this case happens to be the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles from my home in England.

It’s off the tip of South America and there’s nothing south of it except Antarctica.

And the answer – or excuse perhaps – is, I’m doing research on a film script whose locations all lie in South America, the South Atlantic or the Pacific west of that continent.

And my trip is all the more strange perhaps since I actually wrote the script two years ago!

It’s about two now mostly ignored World War One sea battles a hundred years ago involving the British Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy that were pivotal to the eventual Allied – including American – victory.

It’s also a dramatic story of intense personal and international rivalry involving figures like Churchill and the German Kaiser.

This trip will take me from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Montevideo,



Anchor from the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo. The Graf Spee was scuttled in the River Plate just off Montevideo in 1939 after being badly damaged by British ships. It’s relevant to my research because the ship was named AFTER (or for, depending on usage) Admiral Graf von Spee who is the subject of my film script – an Admiral in the First World war. (photo property of Stuart White)


Uruguay; the Falkland Islands; round Cape Horn,


Cape Horn

Cape Horn (island) where one goes ’round the Cape’…the very tip of South America. (photo property of Stuart White)

up the Magellan Strait…then the Chilean fjords

Chilean fjords

Chilean Fjords – photo property of Stuart White

ending at the large port of Valparaiso and the country’s capital, Santiago.


South American Street Scenes

photo property of Stuart White

photo property of Stuart White

It started like this: I was commissioned to write a script called Death at Sea for a Hollywood production company, and duly did. The project is in development right now.

So far the script has had rave reviews. But….I know there’ll be re-writes, there always are. And something nagged at me. I am never comfortable setting one of my books or scripts in a location I’ve never visited.

I’m lucky in that respect as during my career, especially as a journalist and foreign correspondent, I’ve visited more than eighty- five countries, lived in three, including the United States for a total of more than eleven years. (And I’ve visited forty-four of America’s states, too).

I’d even been to four countries in South America. But…I was writing about Montevideo and I’d never been; about the Falkland Islands and…I’d never been. Valparaiso, Chile. Ditto.

So when I happened upon a ship that was visiting all those places on a 15 night voyage I knew I had to take that trip, so that when I eventually come to do the re-write I’ll be better informed.

“How so,” I hear you cry? “Come on Stuart, get with the times dude. With Google anyone can find anything about anywhere; statistics, history, maps, satellite photographs.  It’s child’s play. No need to leave your desk.”

Well yes, but in my view also – no.  Statistics and dry facts don’t tell you everything. You can’t hear them or see them – not really – and you can’t smell and feel them.

Statistics and dry facts don’t tell you everything.

I’ve read novels and scripts set in places such as Paris, New York, London and I just know the writer has never set foot there. They don’t have the sense of it, the smell of it, and the feel of it.

Absolutely nothing gives you the true sense of a place like going there…then it becomes real, and your book or script leaps from the possibly banal and clichéd (and frequently inaccurate) to one with verite.

I wanted to go to the Falklands because our script centers around two battles. In December 1914 a British fleet sank four German warships and drowned 1,800 German sailors about 40 miles off its coastline.  Six weeks earlier a German fleet had sunk two British ships and killed 1,500 men off Coronel in Chile.

I wanted to see exactly where those men died, witness the cruel sea as they did.  

I needed to feel the juddering, pitching of a ship beneath me as it battled high seas and howling gales, and try to imagine the terror of being sunk there!

And later in my voyage I had the thrilling – if eerie – opportunity of knowing the exact moment I was sailing over the precise locations where the battles had taken place; and where fathoms below me, the wrecked ships and the hundred year old remains of those brave men lay.

To me that is research. It sends a shiver down my spine now as it did at the exact moment I passed over the locations, to think that what I had written about had one day been cruel reality for these men.

When I come to the inevitable re-write, that will inform and inspire my work as nothing else can.

Next time: Precisely what I did in the Falklands and later locations in terms of actual research; and what the producers had me do also to help with the project.

And how if you can’t afford the time or expense of visiting a location, the best way of putting spice, and smell and feel and atmosphere into your research.


3 Ways to Write When the Universe Conspires Against You

Scout Semmes here!

J.Semmes Author avatar

This past Friday morning I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 and realized I’d forgotten to set my coffee. As in I’d forgotten to put the coffee and water into the pot, you know, get it ready for the push of the button. To have delicious caffeine elixir #writingfuel delivered into the pot at the easy push of a button. I like my coffee with white chocolate creamer and sugar. If you’re a fellow #coffeeaddict, post your favorite coffee prep below…

It may seem like a small thing, but turning on my coffee pot and having coffee at the touch of a button instead of having to set it up at 5:30 in the morning when I’m ALREADY having to coax myself out of bed is just…too… much. Setting up my coffee the night before is part of my plan for what I call, Day to Day Prepper. This is what I call my system to get things that are important, like writing, done every day. It’s also part of my why I’m-making-myself-get-up-to-write morning routine. Just shows you how one, just ONE little thing can throw you off…

Or, ok let’s up the stakes here. How about two little things throwing you off? Or…more like one little thing and one BIG thing.  First the coffee and then my lifeline to my blog…THE INTERNET.

My internet wasn’t working and my book is on the online service, Google Docs…Yikes…How was I supposed to get any work done?

I was just ready to GIVE UP!

So in the 5 minutes that I cursed at my internet while I tried restarting, unplugging, updating…I did a little soul searching. I asked myself, “What is really important here?”

The answer: Get those DAMN words on the page!

So, that’s exactly what I did. I opened up a blank word document and just started writing. I knew where I had left off in the story because I could lookup my latest revision on my phone. I contemplated just doing my writing on my phone, but my morning brain just couldn’t handle that. And who really wants to write a novel on their iPhone? I mean, really? Ok, yes I do occasionally get inspiration on the road while my husband is driving and just text away into Google Docs like a mad woman. But not that Friday morning. But I just took a deep breath, sipped at my now-cold coffee and did 20 minutes of writing for my story. I’d find where to put it in the novel later…

As Stuart White says…Nothing is EVER wasted when you write, you can always go back and cannibalize it, strip it like an old engine and take the best bits.”

After I had gotten about a page of writing done, THEN it was late enough for me to call an actual person at my internet service company to help me with the internet issue. So I spent some time ironing it out. Turns out, internet service locked out because we used too much data. That’s what happens when you run two home-based businesses and don’t update your internet accordingly! My husband started a Twitch channel…you can find him HERE on Twitch tv. He rocks… : )

So, what should you do when it seems like the universe is conspiring against you?


I use Google Drive and Google Docs to do my writing. I should have downloaded Google Drive to my computer so that I have access offline. I learned my lesson and have since done just that! I also should have helped out my morning routine by setting up my coffee the night before. A  routine is a great way to get the creative ideas going and from there words on your page.


This, I did. I had access to my latest revision of my novel on my phone, so I just looked up where I left off. From there, I opened a new document on the word processor on my computer and started writing. Not the smoothest or best way, but a way to just get those words down.


Whatever happens, there’s always a way to get around it, work with it or learn from it. Don’t give up on your dream! Will you have to occasionally resort to a paper napkin and your kid’s crayon? Maybe, but perhaps you can use those caveman tools to write up a nugget of gold. #inspiration

What do you do to make sure you get those words on the page every day? Comment below…



BY Guest, Stuart White

Stuart White

Stuart White

About Stuart White


We started yesterday with a post on HOW TO GET STARTED WITH YOUR NOVEL.  Today, we are continuing with some tips on



 So you have your title and what the story is about. Now don’t worry, these are not the Ten Commandments written in stone for which you’ll be tortured to death if you should deviate from them. They’re guidelines. Remember that. They’re sort of rails on a bridge, or ropes on a cliff to help you hang on if you falter.

 What to do next…? NAMES!

Next thing to write down: “Who is the hero or heroine or the plurals of those?” Write down the name of that person or persons. Then the names of any subsidiary characters you can think of.


 IMPORTANT NOTE: Give them a name that springs out. Rather than Molly Perkins, Gretchen Sunflower. Rather than Dan Smith, Alban Lightsaber. Get the drift?

 “Good” Character Names

 Good character names stand out and publishers like them and readers love them. But, if you think your character is Molly Perkins, then call her that. It’s your book, no-one else’s. And there’s a good argument that your readers will identify more with Molly Perkins or Sue-Ann Jones, than Gretchen Sunflower. (For this exercise you can have her Molly at the beginning and she’ll change her name to Gretchen Sunflower en route to Hollywood and fame. Most Hollywood stars after all do not use the names they were born with. Deal? OK.)

 “Bad” Character Names

 Definitely avoid like the plague of that cliché, names that readers will find hard to pronounce or stumble over. When they do they might just stumble enough to not bother walking on. I once unforgivably called one of my characters, Uwe. It’s a German name pronounced Oo-vay. No-one I knew who read the novel could pronounce it, and used to say to me, “That guy, the German spy, ooo-weee…or uh-way..” they couldn’t pronounce it. So don’t choose one people will have problems pronouncing, like Brezezinski, Sczesny, or a long incongruous name like Aristotle Van Takhmanangakal (unless it’s some eccentric professor or mad scientist and the name is deliberately weird). Because those are names that people will stumble on, and when they stumble they lose the thread of your book. So – go for a name that springs out but doesn’t overwhelm.

 Helpful tip: 

Make A List

 Start to list their information as though they were a real person. Date and place of birth. (Remember in your novel that the chronology must always fit).

  1. What kind of school did they go to?
  2. Are they Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, whatever?
  3. Are they tall, short, fat, thin? I’m serious. I’ve read novels where people start out small and then suddenly grow about six inches as the story goes on; amazing to have a growth spurt at thirty-five.
  4. What color is her/his hair.
  5. Teeth? Regular, irregular

NOTE ABOUT IRREGULARITY: And a bit of irregularity always makes a more interesting character; a freckle there, a slightly larger eye, a mole. But it’s your character, so if you want them to be six three with ice-blue eyes, blonde/blond with bulging biceps, fine, a kind of Swedish cyborg then so describe them. Just don’t then have them as a shy, retiring middle-school teacher in small-town Alabama because that’s stretching your credibility. Now keep your dossier to hand and remember it when writing your scenes.


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Useful tips for writing your book, making sure it doesn’t founder mid-chapter, and avoiding writer’s block –

Credentials First.

Stuart White

Stuart White

Whenever someone stands before me on a stage to tell me how to write a book or screenplay, get fit, improve my romantic relationships or make a million dollars out of real estate, my first question is: What qualifications do you have for telling me this, pal?

Same with books that carry improbable titles like: “Why you need never grow old,” or “How to write your best-selling book in just 7 days.”

My reaction is, So, are YOU not growing old?” “Did you write a best-selling book in just 7 days, and if so what was it called?

Call me a sceptic, call me a cynic – “OK Stuart you’re a sceptic and a cynic – but I think everyone reading advice is entitled to ask from what well of experience or expertise is it coming.

So here are my credentials, and you can put the value on them you choose, and thus on the advice I give you.


I’ve had six novels published by mainstream (not self-published) publishing houses in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Turkey, Germany and Slovenia.

Apart from English I’ve been published in the following languages: German, Japanese, Turkish and Slovenian. Three novels have been optioned for movies. One of those, ‘Crossmaglen’ is currently in pre-production. Additionally I’ve written eleven screenplays, three of which have been optioned in Hollywood. Two were written under commission – that is a production company hired me and paid me to write each of them.

I’ve also had two what are called ‘Pocket Novels’

published in America, and I’ve got a collection of short stories published on Amazon Kindle. Precise details at foot of this article.

I’ve also written two non-fiction books, basically ghosted but credited autobiographies, one with a ship disaster hero, and the other with the ex-wife of a former world champion boxer.

In the 1980s I ghost-wrote two successful novels under the name of a writer who is now sadly deceased, but also now can’t sue me for revealing that I did. Both were best-sellers, and one was serialised in a British national newspaper.

I was also a reporter and foreign correspondent for more than 35 years. This isn’t a look-at-me exercise it’s meant to be a way of letting you know that I’m I have actually written and been published, and what I tell you here has been learned from hard and often bitter experience.


OK. You want to write a novel? You’ve got a great idea and you’re full of enthusiasm? So you sit down late at night, or get up before even the sparrows have staggered to the bathroom, you grab your notebook your laptop, maybe even your cute but eccentric old typewriter. And you start.

You write for several hours and you’ve got maybe ten pages. You then lose some energy and realize it’s a damned sight quicker to read a book than write one. You get discouraged. It’s like you’ve set off to walk to the Himalayas and hours later you’ve still not made it to the freeway on-ramp.

You put your work aside and even if you pick it up again the next day just a little of that enthusiasm has waned. And worse…you sort of, kind of, knew what the story was but as it’s gone along you’re stuck at some point thinking: Where do I go next?

Don’t worry, everyone has done that. I’ve done it and I’m sure Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy did it when they first started out. (I’m trying to give you a vivid example here not compare myself with those two greats).

It’s like building a bridge without a plan or a base. You start sticking stones or bamboo together or bits of steel, they stretch a few yards out over the river and then with nothing to support them and nowhere to go they either hang precariously or fall into the water with a resounding splash.

I don’t want to tell you what Basil Fawlty might have

called ‘the bleedin’ obvious,”

[Watch Fawlty Towers bits here]

but you need a plan, and you need a method. And you need to do as much preparation as possible before you even start writing.


Here’s what I do and you might do if you wished. Sit down with a paper and pad, not a laptop, just some clear paper, a yellow legal pad perhaps.

Then, if you’ve got a title write it down. Ok, for this exercise let’s invent one…The Road to Fond Rememberings.” (For the record that’s mine not yours, so hands off. My lawyer is not known as Jaws for nothing.)

If you haven’t got a title get one and quick, even just a working title. To get a title work out what your story is: for the sake of example it’s about a girl who makes it out of poverty in Philadelphia and ends up in Hollywood as a star.

So how about The Philly Girl. Or, The Road to the Hollywood Sign? Anything will do right now, call it Project X if you want. But write your title down.

Beneath it write this question: “What is this story about?” Then answer it. Yes I know you could do all this in your head but writing clarifies and reminds. What we write we remember, and of course have a record of.

The answer might be: “The story of a poor girl who makes it to Hollywood but CAN’T FIND HAPPINESS because she has forgotten how to love.” That’s my answer, YOU discover yours. Just one sentence: “A rogue nuclear scientist decides to destroy earth with a dirty bomb but he and the world are saved by the love of a good woman.” (Actually not a bad idea that. Kerching! Copyrighted. Beware of Jaws).


So you have your title and what the story is about. Now don’t worry, these are not the Ten Commandments written in stone for which you’ll be tortured to death if you should deviate from them. They’re guidelines. Remember that. They’re sort of rails on a bridge, or ropes on a cliff to help you hang on if you falter.

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BUY HIS BOOK HERE – We’ll Always Have Paris


Stuart White is the author of the novels Death Game; Operation Raven; The Shamrock Boy; Kiss of the Angel; Til the Fat Lady Sings and The Valhalla Secret. His non-fiction books include, “Zeebrugge a Hero’s Story,” with Stephen Homewood, and “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide,” with Cynthia Lewis Foreman.

He also co-authored the novels, “The Lady and the Champ,” and “Rags to Riches,” with the late Pat Booth.

His Pocket Novels published in America include, “A GI called Joe.” And “The Visitor.” He has a 70,000 word long compendium of short stories entitled, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” for sale on Amazon Kindle.

His optioned screenplays include, To the Very Gates; To Kill a King; Black Jacques and Crossmaglen. He has also written on commission, “Death at Sea,” and “Art of the Warrior.” He is currently writing the supernatural cop TV series, Pendragon.