Friday, March 11, 2011

Researching your setting

It's at this point in my process - the character chart/synopsis/Scene Breakdown Spreadsheet part - that I discover things I'll need to research.

With my current WIP, I'll need to research my setting (Healdsburg, California), the restaurant business, the food TV show business, and cooking in general. I know how to cook, and I really enjoy it (that's what this idea was born out of) but I know my hours in the kitchen and my Food Network obsession don't give me the knowledge base I need for this novel. This WIP will require more research of me than any of my previous manuscripts. Because of that, I'm far from an expert, but I do have some tips, and I welcome you to share your own in the comment section.

Today we're going to focus on researching your setting. It's ideal if it's a place you've been or a place you can visit. But this isn't always possible. Especially for you historical writers, since you can't exactly transport yourself back to Philadelphia 1782, or whenever.

If you write contemporaries, the good news is we have Google Earth at our disposal. I adore Google Earth. The book I just finished editing took place in Visalia, California. A place I've lived, but not since I was 8. The high school there is very different than the high school I attended in Kansas City. Like, there's a creek running through campus, and a piece of the campus is on the other side of the street. While the map I found on the school's website was nice, Google Earth gave me a better "feel" for the school.

But Google Earth couldn't tell me everything. Like, what kind of flooring is in the classrooms. Or whether or not they have warning bells before classes. Are these details that matter? I think they do. I don't want a Redwood High student reading my book and being like, "Obviously she's never been here. We don't have linoleum in our classes." While they might still enjoy my book, while they might still respect me as a writer and understand that I'm a human being and therefore have limitations, those little things can distract them from story world. I want to minimize that as much as possible.

Due to the glories of Facebook, I was able to get in touch with one of my best friends from Visalia, who had gone to Redwood High School. Leah's been wonderful about answering all my questions, and has even volunteered to proof my manuscript. But even if you don't have someone you know whom you can talk to, there are lots of "Leah's" in the world. Lots of people who are happy to help you answer questions. On my writer's loops, there are many posts with subject lines like, "Anyone live in Seattle?" I bet if you put the word out there on Facebook or Twitter that you're looking for someone to answer a few questions about Olympia High School in Orlando, Florida, someone will be able to help. Or know someone who can.

But as valuable as locals are, so are non-locals. My Skylar books are set in Kansas City, which is where I grew up. In some ways that made writing easy. But because I've lived here so long, there were things I didn't think to explain that don't make sense to a non-Kansas-Citian. Like, why one of my characters was driving herself to school at age 15. We have a funky law here that 15-year-olds can have a "restricted" driver's license. They can drive themselves to school and work. I've lived here since I was 10, so that law doesn't seem weird to me anymore, but my editor sure noticed it.

For you historical writers, you'll be doing a lot of reading. I've never written historicals, but I have friends who are passionate about them, like Erica Vetsch. She's multi-published and has written a post on some research tips for historical writers, which you can check out here.

I also asked my friend, Roseanna White, who writes historicals. She sent me this response, saying a lot of her setting research happens before she's written a word:

As the story idea is developing, I sit down and do basic, up-front research--the
stuff I need to know before I can write a single word. This is when I
identify the year, history that's relevant, where exactly I'll put my
characters, the raw data about what life is like there (what they'd eat,
climate, what they'd wear, what their houses look like). Once I've got
those basic details nailed down, I'll write the first three chapters and
thorough plot synopsis, which will show me what other questions will need
to be answered.

We'll talk more about research next week. Hope these tips help you guys out! Enjoy your weekend, and check back here on Monday for a new writing prompt!


  1. Asking locals or experts for help--that's something that I felt weird doing for a long time, but it's so AWESOME! Just remember that most people are nice, and very happy to share what they know with someone interested in it. I have a slew of people who are going to be getting thanks one of these days for their input. =)

    And where Google Earth fails, don't forget to look for videos on YouTube! I thought to look there last year for documentaries, and it's proven invaluable many times over! People love to post their vacation videos, so you can find stuff from around the globe.

  2. I also look at videos on Youtube, which is sooo helpful. My setting is near where I live, on the east coast. I was only able to visit there once, which was as I was leaving a writer's conference last year (it just happened to be only thirty minutes away!) It was helpful visiting, to know what the weather was like, the roads, etc. I can't believe I never thought about looking at this location through Google Maps! Great idea. =) Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sounds like a fun setting for your next book, can't wait to hear more about it & till it comes out :)