Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office
Weather: Sunny once again and 77º
We’ve talked about literary destinations and I could go on and on. Like talking about the road trip I recently took with Lonnie Hull Dupont from Detroit to Kentucky and back, retracing the journey of Gertie, the unforgettable protagonist in Harriette Arnow’s Dollmaker. Or I could talk about our upcoming Books & Such Retreat on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Monterey. Or even wax on about my recent stay in Arcadian Evangeline country, but I worry that to continue would almost be as obnoxious as a long evening of travel slides.
These last few days we talked about traveling to the places we came to love because of books. We looked at those places as book enthusiasts instead of as authors– and that’s a good thing. It’s good to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes and remember what it’s like to fall in love with a story and a place. But now let’s put on our author hats and talk research.
If at all possible with my own writing, I try to travel to the places where my stories will be set. When I wrote Almost Home, a story about Mary Chilton of the Mayflower, I went back to Plimoth Colony and spent several days in the recreated time and place. It was invaluable. Until I stepped into the house Mary Chilton would have called home, I’d forgotten how smoky smelling and dark those first Pilgrim lodgings were. And until I climbed onto the deck of the replica Mayflower ship, I hadn’t sensed how tiny it was– how crowded it must have been.
So much can be learned from experiencing the setting firsthand. If we want to capture the smells and the feel of a place we need to experience it. In a nutshell, here are some of the perks of doing on site setting research:
- It makes it easier to capture the essence of a place– how the air feels, the smells, the sounds, the people . . .
- And from a purely financial point of view, some of the costs of travel for research purposes are tax deductible. Good excuse, right?
- You can take pictures or blog or twitter from your research trip, including your reader in the excitement and helping build momentum for the book. Photos can be used later in your newsletters. Robin Jones Gunn is a master at this. Check out her website.
- When you connect physically with the setting your avid readers will also connect to that place. Look at our enthusiasm about Prince Edward Island, Concord, Plimoth Colony. Someday our readers may plan the same enthusiastic pilgrimages to the places in our books.
The setting of your book is an important element– too often underrated. Don’t forget that, just like we did with the literary pilgrimages we talked about this week, your readers may connect viscerally with your book’s setting. After finishing the recent Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society I decided I have to put the Isle of Guernsey on my list. That’s the power of a setting that comes alive.
So now it’s your turn again: Have you ever traveled to research your setting? How did it effect your understanding of the place? What future settings intrigue you?
Yes! Actually, in this case the phenomenon was the other way around. I traveled to southern Mississippi to visit some friends for homecoming in college and was so enamored with the culture that a book sprang out of that!
I’ve yet to be able to travel for the purposes of researching a novel. However, one of my “reasons” for writing is to be able to travel for research purposes 🙂 Great excuse to indulge in my travel bug AND write at the same time!
Teri D. Smith
I have a three-book series set in Southern California. I’ve been to California about ten times over the years so had a pretty good feel for the area, but I still did some internet research. I found a cool video cam that actually allowed me to take control of the cam and turn it in various directions to look out over the park where several scenes in the book take place.
I still wonder at the technology that allows me to control a cam in California from my computer in Texas!
Crystal Laine Miller
I once worked on an Underground Railroad story and traveled to Levi Coffin’s house in Fountain City, IN to experience the unique home that “spirited” over a thousand runaways from slavery. (He had a well in his “basement!”)
I live in this area, but to actually crawl into the space in the wall or see the bed where giggling girls were secured under the mattress was powerful stuff.
I love exotic, historical or distant settings,and historical/historical romance are my favorite genres to read, but I realize that probably my own place is right where I live, which doesn’t require much travel, unfortunately.
But perhaps I’ll need to travel to find the back story…
The setting for my WIP is ten minutes from my house. So, no exotic trips for me either, Crystal.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Apple Squeeze in this town. (Yes, Wendy, I twittered about it.) I walked down Main St. dodging dogs, strollers, and throngs of people enjoying the festival while they lined up to squeeze apples in the old presses. I took photos, but more importantly for me at this point in my writing, I soaked up the atmosphere, the sense of place that uniquely defines this small town.
Of course I returned home with delicious apple goodies, too. 🙂
Since writing my latest WIP, I would really love to see the Breakers mansion in NJ, the basis for the home that my heroine lives in. It would be so neat!
Union Station here in KC is great…gets the 1920-30’s feel that I’m using for another manuscript.
Just finished a story that started with an 1867 riot in my hometown (Waco, TX) and wound up in Elizabethtown, New Mexico–a real gold-rush ghost town. I’ve traveled through that area many times on the way to Red River, so it was easy to make the setting very vivid. Can’t wait to get back to the next story in that series!
My current wip is set at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. I was surprised at how much harder it was to write about a place I knew only through research. My sister found a bargain package this summer that enabled us to go for a weekend, and the story came alive with smells and sounds.
This week’s discussion reminded me of something I learned this summer. Branson, Missouri, became a tourist destination as a result of the runaway success of Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 novel, The Shepherd of the Hills. So many people came to see where the story took place that the locals were inspired to give them something to see once they got there.
I took several trips to Sonoma, California, to research my romantic suspense, Deadly Intent (and hopefully the rest of the books in that series). That was a lot of fun, especially because I had already outlined the book in detail and knew which places I needed to pay attention to and take pictures of.
My dream would be a research trip to England. No, I’m serious! I’d want to go to certain areas that aren’t necessarily big touristy places, but would be of interest to me as a writer.
Such fun to think about these places. . . I’ve stayed at The Grand Hotel twice. Such good memories. And Camy, I think England sounds wonderful but just to make sure it is a research trip I think you shoud take your literary agent.
Brian T. Carroll
I tend to be compulsive about researching the locations of my scenes, which means I write very slowly, but I’m happy with what I have when I’m done. My WIP is a 1960s California story, concerning capital punishment. Among other things, I’ve gotten myself locked into a cell with a Death Row inmate at San Quentin, ridden along on a sweep-rowing workout just off its shoreline, and talked to an assistant warden who worked there in the 60’s. I’ve walked the Delano locations of Cesar Chavez’s UFW strike. I’ve walked the perimeter of the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles (the building itself has been condemned since the 1971 earthquake) and interviewed retired DA’s who worked there. Before I knew how they would fit in my book, I visited a San Gabriel Valley farm labor camp that has since been torn down and two European locations that serve in flashbacks. I’ve also spent time sitting in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where another key scene takes place. Still to come: I want to walk some of the Sacramento Delta back roads. When my knees and I were younger, I felt walking a place was the best way to get to know it. Just about the time the knees started to go, Google Maps came along to take me places without getting out of my chair. I may not write the Great California Novel, but it will be full of great California locations.
I’ve not specifically planned a trip for setting but once I had been really struggling with a story idea for a chapter book that sprang out of an old mineral survey. I could not get a handle on the setting. I couldn’t find any information that verified if what I “saw” as the setting was possible in a mining/cave situation. I ended up putting it aside in frustration.
Then as we were planning our vacation and were looking for some options as we traveled through South Dakota, I saw a brochure for the Jewel Caves. We put it on the itinerary and bingo! Problem solved. It brought the whole story back to life.
For me setting is terribly important in a book. Setting to my way of thinking is anogther character. It alone has something to say. So I need to feel it, smell it and experience that setting. For my first novel, I knew the place well–Northern Ireland where I was born and had gone back to visit twice. Much of the story takes place in my favoritie great aunt’s beautiful Irish country home. However the setting for my second story was one I could not go to. So I did a heap of research on India circa 1919–everything from the memoirs of famous people in history to ordinary soldiers and their wives, even cookbooks from that era. For my current story, I’m giving myself a break, and writing about the Pacific Northwest where I live. So much easier to step out he front door and breath the air and then put it into my story. And the local museums are fun.
I’ll be writing a book next year (you know all about it, Wendy) that takes place in a sea side setting, far from land-locked Saskachewan. My family and I have opportunity to travel to the places I want the setting to be (for me, I’ll want to draw on several different but similar locations in order to create a composite setting in which to place the story). Hurray for family and friends who can put us all up while I walk the cliffs and search for the towns and clearings and beaches.
I’m also looking forward to soaking in the micro-culture of the places I visit. The figures of speech, the favorite haunts, the lore, the stories.
I’ve traveled once before to a place that feels much like the setting for this upcoming book – and I was strangely home there. I hope to capture that in my book.
Thanks for this great series, Wendy!