I am researching the setting and background for a new novel, which I hope to set near Seattle, WA. I’m going there next month for a week and am trying to sort out what I need to know by the end of the week.
What I Need to Know
Sensory Details. I’ve written about the importance of vivid sensory details here, and here, and again, here. As a young writer, I heard over and over, “Show, Don’t Tell.” When I finally made that more specific–use vivid sensory details–my writing took off. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of great sensory details. I consider it the basic writing exercise for fiction.
That means, I need to walk around the proposed setting and be a fully-present human. I need to soak in the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and what it feels like to move around in this place. I remember a couple years ago, I was at a conference on Puget Sound and a salmon was swimming up a tiny stream. Thrashing, 3-foot long salmon, powerful tale, the smell of salt water and the bacon I was eating at a restaurant, the stream only 2 inches deep, the salmon like a Gulliver in Lilliputia.
When I write details, I don’t care about whole sentences. I’m just creating a word bank so that later, I can draw from the memory what I need. I also need to be able to extrapolate. If it’s like this on Bainbridge Island, would it also be like this in the San Juan Islands far north of there? I need specific enough, yet general enough details so that the story comes alive, but isn’t bogged down by details so specific that I can’t move around the area.
Facts. Oh, dear. There are so many facts that I need to know about the Seattle area. Volcanoes, Puget Sound, school system, boats and on and on. I can absorb lots of that just by visiting the area, but fortunately, I do have long-time residents who can vet the story for me after the first draft. I need to know enough to get the STORY right, and then details can be tweaked.
Logistics. Of course, this is another category of facts, but slightly different than what I meant earlier. For this, I need to know transportation details. How long does it take to go–walk, bike, drive a car, swim, take a ferry–from point A to point B. This is crucial to developing a reasonable time line. Part of this is understanding maps, of course, but mostly it’s about physically moving a person around the landscape.
Culture. Now, here’s a fuzzy one. What cultural elements will impact the story I am planning. Attitudes, beliefs, institutions, dialect/slang unique to the area, how people here DO something–so many subtle and not-so-subtle things need to be taken in (and again, vetted by long-time residents after the first draft).
Whether you create your setting from historical details, contemporary details or create a a fantasy world, this is a crucial step in creating a believable story.