One of the 7 Deadly Fears of Writing is the fear of research. Either you love researching or you hate it, but a realistic novel can’t avoid it. The details you add to your novel are what make the story credible and help suspend disbelief.
The days of poring over old tomes and searching endless shelves of reference material at libraries are gone. Today, all the information you need is literally at your fingertips thanks to the Internet and search engines.
Find a Local
My first and most successful character was a Welshman. But what I knew of Wales and the Welsh at the time came from a chat friend of mine from Wales. I picked up on the way he spoke, the phrases he used and the bits of Welsh culture he shared to use them in the character.
Martin would say, “For a bloke who’s never been to Wales, you sure sound like you could be one of us.”
When James and I began writing a novel that took place in the desert, he had to learn about the location. He was surprised to discover that Las Vegas has water kiosks in parking lots and that we paid for our water. He had to understand that many homes have desert landscaping instead of the lawns and trees he was used to.
James used me as his virtual tour guide to fill in what Wikipedia and the libraries couldn’t provide.
Take a Tour with a Local
Combine business and pleasure. Take a trip to the setting location of your novel, if you can. The details of your story will be that much more vivid because you’ve experienced the setting firsthand.
Eventually, I was lucky enough to travel to Bridgend for a visit. There is nothing like seeing another part of the world through the eyes of the people who live there. I toured the countryside, talked to Martin’s relatives, got to know his mates, and spent time down at the local pub drinking hard cider.
I found that the pubs are nothing like the bars that I’m familiar with. Pubs in Wales make you feel like you’re sitting in someone’s living room by the fire.
What amazed me was the sense of history pervading every nook and cranny of the old streets and buildings. In Wales, some gravestones dated back to before the Crusades. When you walked through fields, you’d come across stone rings like Stonehenge that were even older.
Closer to Home
If you can’t travel across the world to carry out your research, try to find a location as close to your ideal setting as possible to stock up on details.
Calico is a great little ghost town not to far from Las Vegas and it’s a hotspot for ghost hunters. The well-preserved buildings of this old town give you a genuine sense of what it felt like to live back in the 1800s. If I were to ever write a novel about the old west, I’d visit Calico.
More than Window Dressing
Creating a believable setting for your novel involves all your senses, not just vision. If you’ve never been in the desert during the month of August, how would you know what that setting feels like? It’s hot – what type of heat do you feel? What do you smell? What can you hear? A hot August day in Death Valley is very different from a hot August day in Florida.
People’s lifestyles are different depending on location as well. In the desert, people are more inclined to be active early in the morning or in the evening after the sun has gone down. Everyone carries water bottles and sunglasses are a necessity, not a fashion statement.
It’s these little details that only someone living in any given place would know that makes a setting believable.
Life Is an Adventure – So Is your Novel
The next time you’re faced with a pile of research, don’t groan or worry over it. It’s a road trip with an opportunity for adventure.
Put yourself in your character’s shoes while you read the web pages, examine the pictures, talk to a local or visit a new city. Observe the people who live there. Wander the streets and see the setting through your character’s eyes.
And when you write, write what your character sees – not what you see.