So you’ve decided on the perfect setting for your next book. The only problem: it’s a place you’ve never been. So off you go to the web and within a few searches, you have an impressive collection of resources. You have photos of neighborhoods and regional architecture, essays on town history and climate trends. You sit down at your computer with your links and your notes, ready to be immersed…but something’s missing.
Say your character is standing in the doorway of his new coastal home and facing the sea…what does he smell? The salt air? Sure, but is the tide in or out, and does one smell different from the other? Maybe he doesn’t smell the sea at all, maybe he smells a spray of rugosa roses? Or maybe a line of spruce trees? Maybe diesel fumes from a passing fishing boat?
And when he walks down to the water for the first time, what exactly are those hedges that line the coast? Were the rocks wet or dry? Were they covered in seaweed or bare? Did the water drop off gradually or quickly at the edge?
See what I mean? So much for saying “He saw the coast.”
Growing in Maine, I visited many lighthouses, spent a gazillion hours on the coast, and yet, when it came time to stage the setting for my WIP (which, not surprisingly, takes place in a lighthouse on the Maine coast), I realized that for all my experience, there were fundamental elements of my environment that I had missed along the way, elements that would be key to creating an accurate and inviting place for readers to visit and stay on a while, a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand.
So I went back home to Maine and tried to see the coast from the eyes of my character, and I tried to fill in the gaps. I photographed lighthouses and shorelines, fishing villages and seaside cottages. I took broad panoramas of harbors and details of lobster traps. I snapped shots of rooflines and shots of window casings. Shots of weeds and shots of shingles. Because you never know what your character will see or smell or taste or feel.
Now your turn…
Any tricks for researching your settings?
What about the settings you choose? Do you stick with familiar places you’ve lived or visited, or do you like to set your stories in uncharted territories?