I loved field trips when I was in elementary and high school. Sure, sitting for a stretch of time in a stinky school bus wasn’t the best, especially when you hit those winding roads, but I loved the chance to get out of the classroom and actually see what we were learning about.
As writers, we still need to go on field trips. They are a vital part of research. Last month during Easter break, my son and I took an impromptu research field trip, traveling from California through Nevada, back and forth into Utah and Arizona, and then into New Mexico – all in four days! It was a quick trip to get a feel for one of the early inland trails from New Mexico to California for a story I’m writing.
Here are some things to think about before, during, and after your field trip.
Before Heading Out
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, research is important. And you still need to research a field trip before you even head out the door. The internet is a wonderful place to find information about your location. You have access to a plethora of sites, from museums to national parks to places of interest for a particular town, etc. Careful research here can even help you find places you didn’t even think about, like a nature preserve or an old fort or a unique natural monument.
Make sure that once you have your location in mind, that you verify that place is open to the public. Sometimes weather can make certain locations inaccessible, or perhaps remodeling of a building is going on. Websites only have the most accurate details if someone is actively managing the site, so it’s always good to doublecheck. Try to have an alternate place to go to if something changes your plans.
And, make sure you have good directions and real maps! Since I would be traveling in rural areas, I didn’t know if I would have cell service all the time. I made sure I had plenty of paper maps, just in case.
During the Trip
For fiction as well as nonfiction, you need to ask similar questions as you visit a location. For my trip, I wanted to get a true feel of how it would have been to travel by horse or mule or foot in days before trains were even invented. That literally meant boots on the ground. My son and I made sure we stopped often to look at our surroundings. I wanted to know: What did the ground feel like? What did the terrain look like? Was there water available? What type of plants grew nearby? What type of animals were there? What amazing sites would travelers have seen? Was it windy or rainy or snowy? What was the temperature? These questions were vital because all these elements would affect the characters of my story, and I want my story to feel as real and as accurate as possible.
Make sure you document your visit. I had my iPad to take pictures (and even a video to capture the “sound” of the wind in one location), and I had a notebook where I jotted down time, weather conditions, and temperature. I took over 500 pictures and wrote a ton of notes. Being there in person will help me write a better story instead of just doing book or photo research.
Don’t forget to have fun, too. My son and I took a side tour into Arizona to check out a stretch of dinosaur tracks near Tuba City. The weather was super windy, and it was cold! But we learned a ton about dinosaurs that we didn’t know before. Perhaps I can use that experience in a future writing project. I try to never let opportunities go to waste when it comes to finding ideas.
We even stopped to visit family when we arrived in New Mexico. It was the perfect opportunity to see loved ones we don’t get to see too often.
After the Trip
The field trip doesn’t end when you get back home. I’m still documenting all my photos before I forget what was what, and I need to transcribe my notes. And there is still much more to do! My travels opened up other questions I need to find answers to, like what type of clothing was worn in that time period and what tools were used for different occupations.
I guess that means I’ll have to take a few more field trips to gather those details. Thankfully I can find some of those answers locally. I better get my iPad and notebooks ready!
What is the most unique field trip you have gone on for a story idea?
Catherine L. Osornio has written inspirational articles for a women’s ministry newsletter, over 200 leveled reader stories for a school’s reading program, fiction and nonfiction articles for Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr. magazines, The Declaration of Independence from A to Z, Thunder Comes a Rumblin’, plus various work-for-hire projects. A former elementary school librarian, Catherine is passionate about sharing the love of reading. She enjoys cartooning, illustration, and reading kids’ books. Email her at CLOsornio@verizon.net or visit her at www.catherineosornio.com.
Opening Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash