Sunday, March 23, 2008

Is Research Just for Non-fiction Writers and History Buffs?

Unequivocally, No. I know, I know...I've been just too excited about digging through the bones of 19th-century Spiritualism, but even in my contemporary writings, I am constantly looking for answers. The questions are sometimes different, but not always.

First, for any project I have to ask the when and the where. Even if the story takes place right now in my own back yard, I need to explore the setting in detail. If my readers are going to live in it, the setting should be as real and rich as possible, even if all the details don't actually make it to the page. The impression of them should.

What lives there? By that I mean plant life, wildlife, even what kind of people,...what sort of industry moves the town, etc.

I actually took several reading expeditions when I was working on WOS, just looking for what kind of wildflowers actually grow along the Genessee River or even what sort of stove would stand in an 1850 kitchen. Some readers might not notice if I've placed some strange cactus that grows only in the Sahara along the river bank, but one just might. Of course, I hope I never stray that far off the mark. But even in the present-day setting, the little things around the room or in the yard tell us a lot about your characters and their struggles.

Yes, towns have character, too. And your setting should be just that--another character in your story. Give it personality. Give it life. It needs to be more than a "Paper Moon sailing over a cardboard sea..." (to quote an old song and a fabulous movie). The setting has the power to completely alter the reader's perception of your characters, of the problems they face, of the tone of your story. Never underestimate that power of its influence.

Okay, I know I began this little discussion with "first...," but the rest will have to wait for a second installment. In the meantime, enjoy your research. Go out and lie in the grass, smell the air, count the houses, count their windows, notice where the moon rises and exactly how its light paints the trees at 2 o'clock in the morning. Research...


  1. Such good advice. I love the practical suggestions - (count the windows)

  2. You're so right! Giving a story a sense of place rests choosing in the right details and that almost always means research. I find myself constantly researching which plants and trees grow in the area where my story is set, the way particular things are constructed and so on. Sometimes authors get so caught up in the plotting and characterization that they forget the importance of setting.

    I just finished reading Elizabeth Bunce's A Curse Dark As Gold and was particularly impressed by her skillful attention to the details of the setting. That old woolen mill was more than just a place; it became another character.

    Have fun with the research.

  3. Oh yes, I am constantly googling things no matter what my setting is. Good reminder that the small details can really make a setting shine!


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