One of the most important qualities of great fiction is its ability to draw you into the story so deeply you become the characters living in that time and place. One way to create a believable fictional reality is by doing extensive background research for your book’s setting. This is true no matter what genre you write.
Historical fiction requires an author to dig deep into times and places from the past. But romantic suspense, fantasy, and sci-fi all benefit from research into the elements that compose the setting. Even contemporary set mysteries, women’s fiction, thrillers, and romances will feel more real if instead of writing tree or house, you use setting-specific terms like catalpa or clapboard bungalow.
Here are some suggested ways to research your setting:
~ Visit the Location ~
Nothing beats first-hand experience. Visiting the locale of your story is one of the best ways to absorb the unique atmosphere of the place. Even if you live in the spot you are writing about, taking time to roam the community and observe closely can add extra life to your story.
As you explore, take notes on the sensory elements around you. What colors, textures, and patterns do you see? Inhale a deep breath. What do you smell and taste? Stop moving and listen. What do you hear? Pay particular attention to surfaces. How does the ground feel under your feet? What is the atmosphere? How do light and shadow change the way things appear?
If you are writing historical fiction, be sure to visit museums and historical societies. Restorations and living history museums are a rich resource. Often, they will allow you to carefully handle artifacts or explore their archives if you ask. For contemporary writers, try to visit local eateries, stores, art events, and any specific places mentioned in your story.
If your characters interact with the setting environment in a special way, try to imitate their actions as much as possible. Do they play baseball on a local field? Try running the bases. Do they hide in an alley? Explore doing the same. Do they land their spaceship in a lagoon? Find a similar one to experience. All the while, keep your senses at a high level.
~ Talk to Residents and Experts ~
While visiting your locale, ask questions of anyone you meet. Most people will respond to general questions and perhaps add some unexpected information. You never know unless you ask. Things like the weather, the most popular places to visit, and how far is it are great conversation openers. If you say you are a writer, people are usually glad to help. Don’t forget to put their names in the acknowledgements, if they give permission.
If you can’t visit a locale in person, find a local resident or two to interview via phone or videoconferencing. Where to look? Try an area writer’s group. Fellow authors are always glad to help a compatriot. Search social media. Call local government agencies. Consult librarians and museum curators as well as colleges and universities in the area.
~ Use Maps ~
Google Maps and Google Earth are amazing resources for writers. You can search by keyword, latitude and longitude, or place names. Walk streets and find shops and homes using the Street View. Examine landscape terrain using the Satellite View.
To study changes in habitation or ecology create a timeline of satellite views. Here are directions for finding older views.
Interested in the past? Old Maps Online is an international database of map archives around the world. Or try a search on the term Interactive Maps. This will produce a listing of maps that you can manipulate in various ways.
~ Watch Videos and Documentaries ~
If traveling to your story location is difficult or impossible, the next best thing is to search out videos, movies, documentaries, photographs, and other media about your setting.
Another way to get a peek at other places is through webcams. EarthCam has links to cities and wild places all over the world. Watching over a period of time can give a feel for changing weather and light conditions as well as traffic patterns.
However, there are disadvantages to watching from afar. A major one is the lack of a total sensory experience. All these types of media are heavy on visual and auditory elements, but lack access to smell, taste, touch and more. Gather artifacts and materials you might find in that location to recreate the possible scents, textures, and tastes you might experience.
For more on incorporating sensory elements into your writing, see Editing for Sensory Language
Another problem is that what we see and hear has been filtered through the eyes and ears of the media creator or on where a webcam is focused. If possible, watch at least three or more media productions about your setting so you get as wide a viewpoint as possible.
There are also advantages. For one thing, you can stop, slow down, repeat, and review selected images and audio. Another is you can visit far flung places from the comfort of your chair.
~ Read, Read, Read ~
Don’t forget the tried-and-true way to research. Consult the writings of people who have lived in your setting or studied it intently. Diaries, letters, travelogues, research studies, and even tourist pamphlets can provide all kinds of facts and impressions you can use in describing your setting.
~ Learn More ~
For more research ideas, ways to find and evaluate sources, and choosing a method for organizing your data, see my new release Research Your Subject and Validate Your Writing.
“Please, if you write anything, whether it’s a scholarly article, a novel, a blog, or even just a post on Facebook, read this book first.”Kathleen Buckley 5* Amazon review
5 thoughts on “Research Makes Your Setting Real”
The NY Times today has a great feature on Interactive maps of the United States. Every building in the country is now mapped. How inspiring for a writer. Check them out. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/12/us/map-of-every-building-in-the-united-states.html
Great post! As I’m housebound, I have to rely on texts and video to do research. I keep maps handy to see where places are and what the terrain is like.
Happy that the information was of help. It is amazing how much we can learn without ever leaving home.
Great research tips! It’s also helpful to talk to people who have been there.
Glad the tips are helpful. Definitely talking to someone who has visited a locale can be helpful. Thank you for adding that.