Sunday, November 8, 2009

Researching A Setting Can Be Fun

14th Century Tithe Barn - Bredon, England

There's no denying that research is a part of writing whether non-fiction or fiction. And within the parameters of fiction, the genre somewhat dictates how much research is required. Certainly, historical fiction requires extensive research into place and time in order to be accurate with details down to the simplest clothing items. Techno thrillers, legal thrillers, and medical themed novels need to be accurate in terminology, science, and procedures.

But there is an area of research that is often considered trivial or inconsequential in the overall scope of your story. And that's the location where your story is set. Certainly the setting is important, but as a matter of research it seldom makes it to the top of the list.

A contemporary novel set in your home town requires little in the way of research for location. You live there so you know about the terrain, weather, the businesses, the good neighborhoods vs. the bad neighborhoods, streets and highways, tourist attractions, places of special interest and historical interest. That's easy.

But, what about setting your story somewhere that you have never been? If that is the case, you have options available. The most obvious for accuracy is to visit the location—take in the ambiance, make note of the geographic elements, study the activities of the residents, and grab the tourist brochures available in the hotel lobby. All major metropolitan areas have certain 'must see' tourist attractions that are common knowledge around the world. The Empire State Building, Golden Gate Bridge, Tower of London, Eiffel Tower. Well known tourist attractions can certainly be included in descriptive passages of your setting or become part of a scene where some action takes place. That gives the reader an immediate mental image reference to go along with your descriptive passages.

Travel and tour books can be a great help for general research information. The Auto Club (AAA) publishes tour books for all the states that includes information about the major cities in that state and certainly the tourist areas. A real estate search of a city will give you knowledge of the various neighborhoods. A city's website will tell you about the educational system, shopping, cultural events, sports activities, etc.

My most interesting research experience was for one of my Harlequin Intrigue novels, THE SEDGWICK CURSE, a romantic suspense written under my other pseudonym of Shawna Delacorte.

My story was set in a small stereotypical village of the type found in the Cotswolds in the English countryside. A large estate inhabited by the Lord of the manor—land and a title that had been in the family for centuries. An annual festival that had been held on the estate grounds every year for over two hundred years. And murder involving the titled rich and powerful.

I needed to research several things. Certainly accurate information about the physical setting I'd chosen. And then specifics (beyond what I'd gleaned from various British crime drama series on PBS' Mystery) about the way local law enforcement interacted with the privileged aristocracy when investigating a murder.

I had already been to England several times and had another trip planned, so I included spending one week in the Cotswolds to do the research I needed. **This is where the fun part of the research came in. :) ** I found a charming centuries old hotel in the town of Tewkesbury and used it as my base to explore the surrounding area.

My research started when I walked into the local police station, said I was a writer doing research for a novel, and asked if there was someone I could talk to about how a local murder would be investigated. I was passed on to a Detective Sergeant who was very helpful and spent about two hours with me, which was an hour and forty-five minutes longer than expected. I garnered far more information than I needed for that specific book, but great research material for future needs.

The next step in my research was the immediate location for my fictional Lord Sedgwick's estate. This was a major stroke of good luck. About three miles north of Tewkesbury is the village of Bredon that had everything I needed, including a large estate that hosted a village festival every year and the weekend I was there happened to be festival weekend. I was able to wander around the grounds, take pictures, and get information about the estate straight from the owner's mouth. One of the buildings on the grounds, the Tithe Barn pictured above, is part of the National Trust and dates back to the 1300s. It is accurately described and used in my book, as are most of the features of the real counterpart of my Sedgwick Estate.

Obviously, traveling to a foreign country to research a location isn't that practical. If the location is a well-known tourist attraction, you will have lots of research material available to you. But what if your desired setting is a typical small town or village in a specific area? That brings us to the more practical solution of creating a fictional small town as the setting for your story.

I have set many of my Harlequin and Silhouette books in fictional small towns. But the one thing these fictional small towns have in common is that they are all patterned after a real place that I've been in the state where I've set the story. And in lieu of that, there's always the ability of taking something like a beach town or mountain village and transplanting it to another state for the purposes of your story.

If there's someplace you've been, a vacation you enjoyed, and you want to recreate the feel and ambiance for your story setting without fear of getting some of the facts wrong about the real place, the best way to handle it is to create a fictional location. Do some basic research on the general type of location you've selected for your story such as a fishing village on the coast of Maine. That will give you basic generic facts for that type of setting. Then you can take the feel of the real life place you visited and impose those memories and impressions on top of your researched facts for a fully realized story setting. Your characters can then impart that sense of place to the readers with the words and actions you give them in addition to your descriptons.

In my novella FORBIDDEN ISLAND by Samantha Gentry, currently available from The Wilder Roses (the Scarlet Rose line of erotic romances from The Wild Rose Press), the setting is a privately owned Caribbean island. The Travel Channel has a show about privately owned islands and Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island was one of them. I used that as the model for my creation of Forbidden Island.

Do any of you have any research tips for story setting you'd like to share?
Stay Tuned...Sunday, November 15 and Sunday, November 22...I'll be doing a two-part blog on those naughty, sexy pilgrims. It seems they weren't as pure and pious as we thought.


Linda Acaster said...

I can't believe you managed to get two hours research out of our British Police! They are usually so run off their feet that they haven't time for meal breaks. Good for you.

My tip regarding research is *not* to take your close surroundings for granted. Familiarity breeds (unjust) contempt.

I live outside of Hull, Yorkshire, born and raised there, and was looking west to the hilly & windswept Pennines area as a setting for my paranormal TORC OF MOONLIGHT because Celtic bog-bodies were uncovered there and that information fitted my storyline. But visiting Hull's university I was caught by a fleeting image, retraced my steps for a better look, and in mentally stepping back from my accepted normality found the true setting for my novel.

Often an exotic setting isn't necessary, just a different mindset.


Samantha Gentry said...

Linda: I couldn't believe I'd end up spending 2 hours with him, either. :) It was blatantly obvious that he was not pleased with having to deal with me. He said he guessed he could give me maybe 15 minutes. He ended up even giving me a tour of their jail facility!

Very good advice about looking at your location from a different mindset. Something you take for granted could turn out to be so much more.

susan said...

what an awesome thing you did and sounds like you should feel honored the officer gave you that much must has impressed him. ah ah I enjoy reading your article. I also sent you my answers to your J. DEPP contest and enjoyed that very much. susan L.

Samantha Gentry said...

Susan: I received your contest entry, thanks.

That entire research project was interesting. Being on the property that was my real life model for my fictional Sedgwick Estate was fun. The 14th century tithe barn pictured above is only about 100 feet from a modern swimming pool. Interesting juxtaposition of the very old and the new.

Joyce Henderson said...

There's nothing better than onsight research, but many are unable to travel that much. I'm fortunate in that much of what I write I already know. But one shouldn't allow herself to be complacent about setting, and don't forget those interesting folks who peopled an area long before you came on the scene. LOL

I write about horses, which I used to own, farming, which I used to do, and Central Texas, where I was born. Some years ago I spent a week with an aunt in my hometown and haunted the library while I was there; walked the oldest cemetary, and generally soaked up today's ambience so that I could apply it to my historical fiction.

Following that, I have recontacted the librarian several times over the years, and she's been unfailingly helpful.

Samantha Gentry said...

Joyce: Good suggestion about making and maintaining a contact in an area used as a favorite setting in several novels. Soaking up the atmosphere of a present day location can provide the extra spark to make the historical setting come to life in a book.

Mary Ricksen said...

gosh, I wish I could afford to travel to do research for my stories. That would be a big help!

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Samantha,
Great article. It is obvious that you go to a lot of research for your books and are prepared to go that extra mile, so to speak, and I admire that, nothing worse than reading a book that has a glaring mistake in it, turns me off the author for life.
I write historical romance myself, so I know the importance of historical accuracy.
I live in Australia, but I travelled to England then made a pilgrimige to the World War 1 battlefields of France and Belgium while researching my World War 1 novels. This would have been one of the most poignant moments in my whole life.

Samantha Gentry said...

Mary: I have to admit that was back when I also had a 'day' job that paid all the bills, so I could afford to do things like that with my writing income. Ah...those were the good old days.

Samantha Gentry said...

Margaret: That sounds like a marvelous research trip. I'd love to visit the Normandy beaches that were the D-Day landing sites for World War II.