I often tell my students, "Use your imagination!" Then, I launch into a mini-lesson on including sensory details. It's true that with a little imagination an author can create entire universes. However, all the internet research, poring over maps, gazing at photographs, and talking with experts can't take the place of actually being there.
I had slammed into a research roadblock. The local library and the internet were no longer able to help me. Without much effort, I convinced my husband that a road trip was necessary for me to dig into the details for my third novel.
I had been to Fort Laramie many, many years ago. Memories of this important fort have stuck with me, and I included references to it in my second book. I didn't really think I needed to go there for setting information; I just needed to talk with someone who could help me with two significant plot details.
However, setting foot on Fort Laramie soil whupped me upside the head! Sensory detail overload! Forget the research questions (temporarily); I just needed to take in the setting.
Other than a couple of staff members, my husband and I were completely alone at the Fort. On the one hand, it was eerily quiet. On the other hand, I could hear the river whisper as it wandered along. I could hear a hawk screech in the sky. The ever-present wind rustled the dry prairie grass. As if someone slowly turned the volume dial higher, I could hear the sounds of horses stomping, soldiers whistling, dogs barking, wagons rumbling, a fiddle singing, and women laughing. Fort Laramie had come to life.
I filled notebook pages with scribbled notes as I walked the site. Plot points changed as I thought, "Oh, I need to add that and that and that!"
Being there even made me re-design my characters - adding a few new characters and changing the motivation for others.
Being there gave me the opportunity to talk with someone who was there nearly every day. Getting her perspective on the changing seasons and how that impacts the setting was helpful in surprising ways.
And, I eventually got around to asking the questions that had brought me there in the first place.
Being there is not always a possibility. But, at the moment, the best piece of advice I can give a writer striving for authenticity is: GET THERE!