In the name of research… Part 1- Setting

November 14, 2012

The things a girl has to do in the name of research…

I’ve already taken you on my adrenaline-packed aerobatic flight in the earlier post The Avengers. With Book 1 of my trilogy wrapped up, I thought I’d share some of the journey that brought it into the world. For writers you might like some of my tips and for readers you might like to know where my ideas come from.

In this first post on research I’ll give you my tips for SETTING and how to form a strong connection with place:

#1 Write first, add detail later. The first rule of getting that novel written is to fill the pages as quickly as possible. Think ‘e’ for electronic research. I started researching my setting on the internet because let’s face it, we all know it’s way cheaper than airline tickets when your story is global and eats up far less of your writing time. So I Googled ‘kidnapping’ and learnt Phoenix was the #1 kidnapping capital in the United States and my U.S. setting was born. But beware, just because you read it on the World Wide Web doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true – do confirm your information is from a reliable source.

#2 Spend as much time as you can away from the internet and in ‘real’ settings. If you can visit your setting, fantastic! I had the opportunity to add detail to my settings by actually visiting some of them. I recently did a sunset horse ride through the Arizona desert. I could never have captured the vastness of the landscape had I not seen it for myself.  It was like being on another planet and so different to the Australian outback. Riding across the ridge as the sun set across the desert was an incredibly surreal experience and added the word ‘pockmarked’ to my desert settings.

 

#3 Saturate your senses. Even if you can’t be in the place that your novel is set, find somewhere similar to inspire you. I have a quiet addiction to the rainforest but its many years since I’ve hiked through untamed forest and creeks like my main character has to do. So I spent a few weekends in rainforest retreats and hiking well-worn trails. Sit down in the middle of the woods, so to speak, and soak up the sights and sounds. The tinkling of the nearby creek and the myriad of insects flittering in the light filtering down from the canopy were discovered in just such a place.

 

#4 Open your mind to new experiences. If you set at your desk every day, nothing changes. In 2011, I travelled to South America. After a harrowing ride across the roughest seas they could remember (maybe that was just meant to scare us) on a ‘ferry’ that looked more like a refugee boat, I spent several days exploring the stunning island of Ilha Grande. With its lush rainforest covered mountains and pristine white beaches, I just knew it had to be the location that the military grandfather in my story retires to with the family secret.

#5 Always keep a notebook at hand. Practice visual note-taking. If you see something that fits your setting, record it. Cross check your notes with internet finds. In part of my book I have some girls locked in a shipping container in a warehouse. I happened to see a shipping container on the back of a truck a few days back and noticed how the locking mechanism worked. Such small detail but I was able to weave that into my description.

#6 Take photos/video of places and use them to practice writing flowery descriptions of your setting. Then cut all the padding out that will slow your reader down and put the bare bones of the setting in your novel. The reader’s imagination will create the rest.

 Let me know if these tips helped you improve your setting in any way by posting your comments below.

Lea

 

Comments

34 Responses to “In the name of research… Part 1- Setting”

  1. Jodi on November 18th, 2012 5:46 pm

    Really helpful Lea and great how you use examples from your own research. I’m already planning a trip to research my setting and speak to the people there. I’ll be taking my notebook and camera!

  2. Lea on November 18th, 2012 5:51 pm

    Thanks Jodi. I’ll be posting my tips on researching people soon. Lea

  3. Grace Cooper on November 18th, 2012 8:14 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I am originally from Washington, D. C. A lot of stories are set there, but one book I remember used actual lesser known street names and neighborhood sites and sights that were apart from the usual US Capitol, White House, etc. e.g. a small neighborhood deli, a store front church, a playground popular with basketball players, etc. Use of these real home town places added autheticity and made the reading more real to me. Even someone from somewhere else, I think would get a feeling for the real place by addition of such details.

  4. Lea on November 18th, 2012 8:15 pm

    Great advice Grace, I’ll take it on board. If you can’t go there yourself, there’s always Google Earth that will give you street views of such places.

  5. Betsy A. Riley on November 18th, 2012 8:56 pm

    Nice tips, thanks for posting the link. I would add: don’t rely solely on visual descriptions–include other senses. You mentioned sound, but also think about smells, textures, temperature, humidity (or lack of). For instance, in my first trip to New Mexico, I found that the curl disappeared from my hair because of the dry air. Sweat evaporated quickly, leaving a gritty layer of salt on my skin. In tropical settings, my hair curled up and my clothing got soaked with sweat that would not dry–creating a sticky feeling.

  6. Ian Miller on November 18th, 2012 10:15 pm

    For me, I try to learn as much as I can about the place BEFORE I write anything about it. You can waste a certain amount of time if you find out eventually that it is unsuitable for some reason, but better to find that out before writing than after.

  7. Lea on November 18th, 2012 10:17 pm

    Sound advice Ian. Thanks for your comment. I did get plenty of detail from the internet first to qualify my setting, then had the opportunity to visit it later to add to the description.

  8. Laurie Smith on November 20th, 2012 3:43 pm

    I’m lucky in one way when it comes to creating a sense of place in my books. I write what I know and have a musty storehouse of memories lurking in the depths waiting to be drawn on. With my varied past work history I can conjure up many things I may need to place in the story. The key is bringing the whole memory up. For those who don’t have the work experience I can suggest looking at a picture of what you wish to write about. Look at each part individually and bring the image to the front of your mind. For instance you may be describing something happening on a fishing trawler. Already there are three smells, salt water, fish gut and diesel fuel. Below decks there are cooking smells, the heads, if the weather is rough all of these smells will be combined. Then you have that biting tang of ozone in the air, the rocking, rolling movement of the boat. Seagulls hovering and squawking above. The wind caressing your skin, the cold/heat, water splashing as the trawler cuts through the sea. The disappearing/reappearing horizon, how your body feels balancing on the deck, the chug chug of the engine and the occasional puff of diesel smoke. All that without a boat in sight.

  9. Jade Cannell on November 29th, 2012 1:12 pm

    Fantastic grounded advice Lea thanks heaps.

  10. A J Robinson on December 3rd, 2012 10:50 pm

    I have an English teacher once tell me to remember the five senses. She said that you didn’t have to use all five in every scene – that’s like going down a laundry list! No, what you want to do is figure out which of the senses are best suited to setting a particular scene. If you’re in Florence, Italy, it could be visual and olfactory. If it’s a seaside resort or island, maybe the salt air stings the eyes or can be tasted.

  11. Kenneth Weene on December 3rd, 2012 10:51 pm

    Too often authors confuse naming well known sites with evoking a place. “Wow, the Washington Monument.” “Did you know it has 898 steps.” “I’m not climbing that.” “Don’t worry there’s an elevator.” Now that is bad writing.
    “People are allowed to do that?” “What?” “Lie around on the grass that way. I mean that guy hasn’t even got a shirt on.” “So?” “Hey, that’s the Washington Monument.” “Sure. Let’s get some peanuts from that vendor.” Okay, I just made it up, but it’s more the setting.
    And A.J. is dead on. We want to use all our senses, including the ones for which we don’t have names. For example, “Gosh, I’ve been here dozens of times but I still get tingly.” “Know what you mean. Ever hear a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing?” “No, put I listened to King. Now that was a speech.” (Yes, Memory is a sense to me as is tingly sensation.)

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Lea Scott