Woohoo! Angela Ackerman is back in the house with another fabulous post! Do not miss this one!
One of the big decisions writers are faced with is whether to choose a real location for the backdrop of their overall story, or create one of their own imagining. Crafting a world from scratch is a lot of work (requiring a deep understanding of the society, infrastructure, rules, governmental influence, as well as a million other details). But it also avoids a big problem associated with real-world locations: reader bias. This is when the reader’s own emotional ties to a place influence their reading experience.
Imagine your character is living in a neighborhood that a reader grew up in. Even if you carefully researched the setting, perhaps visited it yourself, people and places still change over time. Stores close, schools are torn down. Streets are renamed. Readers will expect the story world to match what they remember, and this isn’t always the case, causing a ripple in their reading experience.
Bias aside, there are many great reasons to place your story in the real world. Readers can slip into the action easier when they understand it takes place in Chicago or Amsterdam because they recognize these areas and can fill in blanks as far as how “big picture” society works.
So, let’s say you do decide to go with a real world location. Ideally, a road trip is in order, right? Maybe. Is it close enough to travel to? Do you have the budget for it? If so, go for it! There’s nothing better than getting first hand sensory detail, which is why most of the 225 settings Becca and I profiled in the Urban and Rural Setting Thesaurus books we visited in person. But, travel isn’t always in the cards (or the wallet.) And if it isn’t, we need to dig in and research to ensure we get the details right.
3 Basic Real-World “Biggies” To Nail Down For Any Location
Climate and Seasons: As we all know, any location looks different season to season. Climate influences everything: the flora and fauna, what people wear, the types of buildings, you name it. Understanding the temperature, humidity (if it’s a factor) and local weather is important, especially when writing about a location that is vastly different than what you’ve personally experienced. Which leads us to…
Topography: The type of landforms tied to your location are a big part of the story. Urban or Rural, knowing natural (trees, rivers, plants, etc.) or manmade (buildings, infrastructure) elements creates realism. And, researching the different features and dangers inherent to a landscape will help you turn your setting into an obstacle course, creating conflict and blocking the protagonist from his or her goal.
Social Issues, Language, and Culture: The people who live in a real-world location influence the shape and structure of it (colors, styles, government, local events, food, entertainment, modes of travel, etc.). Slang, customs, gender roles, religion, and dress will likely be unique to this area. For example, at the height of summer you might be tempted to have your characters slide on flip flops on their way out the door. But, if they live in a rugged mountain town with a strong culture of active living, they’d more likely wear light hiking shoes or treaded sandals, footwear suited to the activities people here engage in. Local readers would know this and expect the author to as well. If we skimp on research, or make blanket assumptions, we can break the reader’s trust.
Angela’s Favorite Setting Research Bookmarks
We know what information to dig for, so now it’s about doing it. Here are some of my favorite sources for setting detail.
You Tube: Some settings Becca and I couldn’t see firsthand, either because they were too dangerous, off limits (AKA trespassing), or too far away. You tube was invaluable. If you have a specific place in mind, run a search and pair it with “tour” or “walkthrough.” Often, you’ll find just what you need, straight from a local’s perspective.
Travel Photography Sites: When people travel, they take pictures. Finding forums and sites where people share photos and the stories of their encounters is a great way to get authentic detail.
Pinterest: Is there anything Pinterest can’t do? I don’t think so! Type in your location and see what pops up. Even better if you can pair it with an activity that ties into your book. For example, I typed in “Ohio Camping” and all kinds of detail gold came up.
National Centers For Environmental Information: This site is great for accessing the weather and temperature for different areas and is especially helpful for US locations.
National Geographic Interactive Maps: You can find a lot of statistical information about different parts of the world from this site—give it a whirl!
Google Earth: Street view can show you a lot of extras that help fill in the blanks when it comes to a particular setting.
Movie Locations Database: Wouldn’t it be great to see real world locations through the lens of a movie camera? You can, with this database! Type in the location you wish to write about and all the movies filmed there will display in a list. Pop some popcorn, grab a pad of paper, and take yourself to the movies.
The Setting Thesaurus: Becca and I investigated 225 different setting locations and gathered the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures associated with each so you know what your character may encounter and use our sensory detail to bring readers deeper into your story. Ancient Ruins, a Police Car, a House Party, an Antiques Shop…the detail for these and other locations will give you a big head start on painting a vivid canvas for your audience. (This thesaurus is also at One Stop For Writers, along with a Weather Thesaurus and many others, cross referenced for quicker searching.)
What are your favorite resources? Let me know in the comments!
Don’t forget to join us next week for more amazing romance writing tips!
Bio: Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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