For some stories, you know exactly where the story needs to be set. You know the place, either because you’ve been there, or you feel like you’ve been there. If you’ve been or lived where you’re setting the story, some might say that it’s a slam dunk to create your setting. Not necessarily so. Knowing a town intimately might mean that what is the “norm” for you is something that you can no longer pick up on, but that might set your setting apart in other ways.
Setting is more than just the buildings on a map. It’s the sights, sounds, smells and energy of a place.
When writing a locale different to your own experiences, how do you go about it? E.L. James, for all you may or may not like her writing, never visited Seattle. Did that stop her from painting a pretty decent picture? No way. She had this pretty neat tool called… um, Google Street View? And the internet in general.
Diana Gabaldon wrote Outlander, the first novel in her series, without having ever visited Scotland. Now, that was pre-internet, but with a research background to her name, she did a pretty fine job of it. You can feel, hear, smell and taste Scotland in her rich descriptions.
I’ve been to the Isle of Arran (lived there in fact) and it’s heavily influenced my stories. I can describe the views, the smell of the sea air and the way grannies zip down the road in their motorized buggies like Formula One drivers. I’ve never been to Portland, but it’s inspired the home town for my heroine. I had a struggle with this one. Why did I choose Portland? Partly because I’m using the theory that if my heroine is American instead of Canadian then my novel will have more marketability, and partly because my heroine is working in the world of advertising. Portland is home to some of the best companies, including the masters of Wieden+Kennedy (think Nike ads). Google Street view, Google Images and travel blogs were my go-to for research and inspiration.
I can’t imagine the complexity in creating a setting from scratch. Fantasy and sci-fi writers definitely have their own challenges (perhaps extremely fun challenges!) in building worlds that are unique to readers. Then again, I also feel that folks like J.K. Rowling must have a hell of a good time building Diagon Alley, Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, using the familiar and the unfamiliar to inspire.
What about you, fellow writers? How have you researched your setting? Did it come easily? Or did you just pick a place out of a hat? Do you write what you know, or do you push yourself out of the familiar?