I’ve been researching the setting for a new book/series I’m working on, and I thought I would share a few insights into “some” of the ways I get a handle on a setting.
You see, it is very important to me that I make the reader feel like they’re actually living the book they’re reading. Or, at a minimum, I hope they can clearly picture the surroundings of a scene as if they’re visiting the place themselves. Here are a few ways that I do this.
Live Where the Book Is Set
Many of my books are set in Central Kentucky, where I have lived for most of my life. Midland, KY—where portions of the Mindspeak series and the In Darkness series are set—is a fictional town modeled after two Kentucky towns I know and love located midway between Lexington and the state’s capital of Frankfort.
Now, Mindspeak is actually centered around the setting of a boarding school, though the characters do venture out to other places. But that boarding school is very loosely based on a small university in one of the towns I modeled Midland after.
The In Darkness series is mostly set in Midland, though there are some excursions to Washington D.C., Chicago, and other Kentucky locations. For those areas, I’ve either traveled there, or I’ve done extensive research (read below).
Though I don’t subscribe to the “write what you know” mantra very often, that is exactly what comes into play with respect to setting novels in places you know well.
Travel to the Places You Wish to Set a Story
Tracked, book five of the Mindspeak series, was actually set in Costa Rica at a camp for humanitarians. I actually traveled to the town and stayed in the camp that this book centers around. I had first-hand experience into the setting, and I’ve received some beautiful emails telling me that I “nailed the setting” of that book. Hopefully, when you read Tracked, you feel the same way.
I’ve explored the Asheville, North Carolina area in the past. I was already familiar with that area when I decided to set the Emerge series near the Biltmore House. Of course, I used Pinterest and my imagination to come up with how much the Biltmore and surrounding areas had deteriorated after a virus killed off most of the population of the United States. You can check out photos I used for inspiration on the Emerge, Uprising, and Renaissance Pinterest boards.
This past summer, I visited Paris, France and London, England plus a few other cities and areas in those countries. A new series I’m working on will be set all over Europe, so visiting these places helped me to know the sounds and smells, as well as be able to picture some of the smaller details I need to make a reader feel like they’re actually inside the story they’re reading.
Google Maps and Other Internet Searches
Sometimes, you just can’t visit a place you’d like to set a book or particular scenes within a book.
I have never been on an atoll in the middle of the Pacific, however Mindsurge took us to such a place. Palmyra Atoll is an actual place with a very rich history that inspired the fiction I created for such a place. Yet, some of the details I used weren’t completely fiction. If you want to be fascinated by a place not many will ever visit, visit Palmyra Atoll’s Wikipedia page. While you’re there, you can learn about an actual murder mystery that was written about in a true crime novel, And the Sea Will Tell.
As I’ve been writing a novel that is coming later in 2018, I’ve been using Google Maps to zoom in on bars and houses in Paris, France and London, England. It’s amazing how many actual details and the feelings you can get just by using this feature of Google Maps.
Airbnb, Zillow, and other Homes for Rent or Sale Searches
My absolute favorite way to get a feel for homes my characters might live in or visit is to do searches on Airbnb. You can visit castles in Europe, horse farms in Kentucky, honeymoon destinations I might never afford, etc. just by doing such searches. This is exactly how I found the house in London, England that Dimitri lives in when he’s in London. (Dimitri, from the In Darkness series, is the co-star of a new series coming later in 2018. If you want to make sure you’re receiving all the news about this series, make sure you’re signed up to receive my monthly newsletter.)
Friends Who Live in Places You Wish to Write About
Over the weekend, I was having a problem with something in my plot. I wanted to write a scene where my main character would break into a home in London, England by entering through the back courtyard, but it dawned on me: I wasn’t sure you can actually enter a home in London from the back. I was imagining an alleyway behind the row houses. Well, thanks to an email to a friend who lives in London, I was set straight. The only way to get to the courtyard or garden behind one of these row houses is through the house. She even told me a story of a friend who had a tree removed from his garden. They had to cut it down in pieces and carry the pieces through the house to dispose of it.
So, yeah, when you’re not sure, email a friend.
Setting Truly Comes to Life in the Small Details
So all of the methods above are ways for me to learn about the settings I wish to write about, but the true way to bring a setting to life is to use clear and specific descriptions. How does a place look (of course), but also what does a character hear and smell while in a setting? How does the setting make them feel? Do you get the feeling of small town charm? Or fast-paced, big city life? Does it rain a lot? Is it cold or warm?
I’ve actually spoken to authors who never write specific details of seasons so that a book can’t be placed in a certain time of year. This isn’t right or wrong, but I’ve typically done the opposite in my most recent books. I like to place the reader directly into a setting by describing if the leaves on the tree are changing colors, non-existent, or just starting to bud. A rainstorm or snowstorm can be used to completely change the mood of a scene. Does a warm fire come in handy when a couple is having a serious conversation that might change their future?
I have only skimmed the surface in this post the many ways a writer brings a setting to life. But I treat a setting as important as the developing of a character. Sometimes, the setting is a character.
So, tell me, how important do you find the setting of a book? Do you have a favorite type of book that is centered around setting? (For example, many people enjoy books set in southern U.S. towns. I like books set in Pacific Northwest towns and Alaska, though I’ve only written one book set in Portland, OR — Deceived.)