Research is necessary for any successful setting although it can also be a quagmire from which the unwary writer may never emerge. While it’s tempting to use only invented settings or to confine your stories to a few locations that you feel you know well, this type of restriction may not be what’s best for your story. Furthermore, research–despite its potential hazards–shouldn’t be avoided.
In this post, I want to divide setting research into two main areas: actual locations and imaginary locations. Let’s deal with them separately.
Actual locations can be split further into actual contemporary settings and actual historical settings. You may think a contemporary setting is easy and needs no fact checks, but never assume your knowledge is correct or sufficiently thorough. Check and recheck your details. Get them right, and don’t hesitate to visit a street, neighborhood, or district just to look it over with a fresh perspective. Think about how your protagonist or viewpoint character might perceive the area. What would this character notice?
Above all, avoid doing your research by watching television. What looks good enough to “work” for television isn’t necessarily accurate. Prop masters on motion-picture sets have been known to attach the blade from one type of sword to the hilt of a different kind of sword just because it “looks better” onscreen.
Don’t fear to ask questions. People love it when you show interest in where they live or what they do. They’re flattered and usually eager to help. Before the existence of the Internet, a writer friend of mine once set a novel on a remote chain of largely unpopulated islands. She needed to describe the sound of the surf as the tide came in, and she finally called a weather research station on the island, explained what she was doing and what she needed, and then gained the assistance of the staff as they opened windows and held the phone receiver outside so she could “listen.”
Historical settings are dangerous in that researching them can lead you down a rabbit hole to infinity. Sometimes writers avoid doing any actual writing because they feel they should research every detail first. Before you know it, you’ve missed a deadline or you’re revising your plot outline in some weird way to fit a setting quirk that you think needs including. I love history. I love researching. I love details. I love discoveries. I’ve written many novels with historical or quasi-historical settings. Once I skewed my plot to include a piece of research that I found too cool to ignore. Let’s just say that after an uncomfortable conversation with my literary agent where he took me to task for those unnecessary 17,000 words and I subsequently missed a week’s vacation while I deleted them, I have not repeated that mistake.
Early in my career, I was given an invaluable piece of advice. It was to plot first and write the rough draft, and then do the research. That’s because you will know exactly what you should check. Because I have written so many historicals, I have amended that approach to doing minimal upfront research to make sure my plot outline is plausible and feasible. Then I write the rough draft and then I double-check my facts. This way, I’m not sucked into any black holes of no return. I keep the information under control. I don’t waste time exploring the bucolic delights of Welsh sheep country when all I need are two Welsh character names.
Imaginary locations are not an automatic free pass from doing any fact checking at all. Even if you’re creating a wholly invented world in a futuristic fantasy, you must still be plausible. That means as you construct your story world with its terrain, climate, cultures, societies, economies, government, level of civilization, and everyday life you must make sure all the details fit feasibly together.
If you’re creating an imaginary small town located northwest of an actual metropolis, you still need to know the distance they are from each other, whether the metropolis will be utilized or referred to, plus the climate, the smells, sounds, cultures, and populace of your made-up community. I have lived in small communities adjacent to big cities. I know what it’s like to need a part for repairs or an item from a store and be told it’s not in stock and I’ll have to get it from Big Town. I know what it’s like to live a hundred miles or more from the nearest city and how neighbors shun any suggestion of visiting the city because “it’s a whole different world.” Or, “we don’t understand people that live way up there at that end of the state.” I also find that the inhabitants of some major cities can occasionally be as insular and provincial as the folks in small towns.
Remember that your invented community isn’t isolated and should relate to what part of what state it’s located in.
If you choose instead to situate your story in an actual place but you want to invent only a street or neighborhood, then you’re running the risk of confusing readers and being misunderstood. People tend to plunge into books, eager to get into a story, without bothering to notice that it’s set, for example, in 1920s Bombay, India, or 1960s Detroit. They miss all the cues. They don’t read the back cover blurb, and they hit some statement or behavior in the story that throws them, jolts them, or confuses them. They tend to conclude that you, dear writer, haven’t done your research and don’t know this setting at all.
Unnecessary and avoidable?
Even if you write a paragraph of explanation inserted on the first page that tells readers this is an invented district, chances are some won’t see it.
My advice is either to use entirely accurate information in an actual locale or move to an entirely invented place near an actual locale.
Whatever you do, don’t settle for generic vagueness in which the backdrop is as lively as motel-room decor and could take place anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.
And finally, writers are constantly told to write about what they know. That advice–while absolutely sound–doesn’t mean you can’t use a location you’ve never visited or or that you can’t invent a backdrop entirely. You know a place through learning about it, observing it, talking to others who’ve been to it, running a Google search for images, and going there. If you can’t be there physically, at least travel there in your imagination.
By imagination, I don’t mean you invent or ignore details about an actual setting. Instead, you should mull over your research, think through all the details you’ve gathered, ask questions, and dig deeper. Remember that as you write a manuscript you’ll be checking your setting during prep, during the writing, and during revision. Also, be aware that no matter how much work you do, how many questions of the locals you ask, and how hard you try, it’s possible you can still get some niggling detail wrong. In that case, you apologize, shrug it off, avoid reading the irate reader review on Amazon, and do better next time.