On Not Writing What You Know: Researching Place

I haven’t posted anything in over two weeks, I’ve been preoccupied with a new job I’m starting soon (yea!) and arranging the logistics has been time-consuming. But that doesn’t mean I gave up writing or researching for my YA supernatural novel. During the editing process I realized that I needed a more detailed explanation of the small-town Colorado setting where the story takes place. Of course, the town in my novel is a fictional place, but that doesn’t mean I can fudge the details. As a reader, a detailed and fully-realized setting goes a long way in making the story believable—a setting structures the plot and creates a frame of reference for the characters’ actions.

So what do you do when you’re conducting research on a place? What do you need to look for? What do you need to find out about a place when you’re writing about it? The goal of setting research is to make sure you can capture the tone and character of a location, the mundane details of what it’s like to live there so that the reader feels like they are living inside your story.

Ideally you would visit or live in the location yourself. You would know what it feels like and looks like when it rains. The smells of the place, what the air feels like before a storm. The colors, and the sounds a person would hear. How the ground feels beneath a person’s feet. What the sky looks like, the terrain, the physical backdrop of the place. What the people wear, and what natural or man-made elements a resident of that place would encounter in their daily life. But what if I’ve never been to there? What if I can’t visit that place?

If you’re following that old writing adage,

“write what you know”

Mark_twain 1884
Mark Twain (1884)

–a quote typically attributed to Mark Twain, you might shrug and give up on the story. I’ve never liked that advice—it’s limiting and leaves no space for imagination or education. If people only wrote what they knew we’d have very few books. When your setting is a place you’ve never been—or in the case of a historical novel or something fantasy or science fiction-related, a place that’s impossible to visit, you have to research and invent. You miss out on the sensory details that bring a story to life.

When it comes to researching place, you have to get more creative than just reading a wikipedia article. A list of facts about a location’s climate, terrain, flora, fauna, architecture, and street names will get you started but can’t convey a sense of place.

So what do I do?
For me, understanding the location of my story is a daunting task. I’ve never visited Colorado and the place where I live is so different from that area that I was overwhelmed on how to start. I started by reading up on the history of the location, in particular the silver boom in Colorado during the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s that brought floods of settlers eager to capitalize on the boom.

aspen 1898-1905
Colorado. Aspen Silver Mines (1898-1905) Detroit Photographic Co. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Starting with the historical background of a place is useful because it gives you insight into the character of a location and explains the architecture and “look” of the place. I also looked into the climate, weather, and terrain of the area. The Weather Channel website gives great info as well as weather maps. Learning about the local flora and fauna can also be helpful. Photos of the place—both past and present give you a visual snapshot of the place, but can’t tell you much about the sensory experience of a place. Maps—whether it’s a terrain map, climate map, street map, or a map of other information can give more of a sense of the location than just a picture—you get a sense of scale and the layout—I like to go a step further and draw my own map to give myself a stronger feel of the place.

Perhaps the most useful bit of research would be to interview someone who’s lived in or visited the place—ask them details that you won’t easily find through other research methods—like what the place smells like, the sounds you hear, the people, the tone of the location.

Again, making sense of all this information comes down to imagination. Combining the information collected and making a mental leap in order to use what you do know to understand what you don’t. You color in the details by making educated guesses using what you learned and what you know. My book opens with a rainstorm, and while I haven’t experienced a Colorado rain I know what it feels like to get caught in a storm, so used the weather and climate details I collected and interpreted them using my personal experience to describe the physical sensations of being left out in a storm.

denver and rio grande railway 1881 large
Map of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway lines in Colorado (1881)–rail lines in black. Credit: S.W. Eccles and Denver and Rio Grande Railway Co., Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

In a way, historians have to do the same thing. There’s no possible way you can know everything about past events, persons, or places. Depending on what you study, there’s a lot of gaps in the research and a good historian is able to draw a narrative of how something happened using the information—the “clues” that she has. Historians interpret the information that’s available—what we accept as historical truth—the narrative of history–is not something transcribed verbatim from the materials of the past. The historical “truth” is something historians need to tease out from the “stuff” of the past—there’s a reason it’s called history, because the bald facts are nothing without the structure of story to make it all make sense. Researching place for a novel is the same way, you can collect the facts—but it means nothing until you interpret it to make a narrative.

Notes and Further Reading:

Believe it or not, Aspen, CO (yes, the popular ski destination, Aspen) was a silver boom town in the 1880s: https://www.loc.gov/item/2008678057/

Photo Credit for Map: https://www.loc.gov/item/98688650/ The map also shows major mining areas (coal, gold, silver) in Colorado

Pamphlet put out by the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1879 detailing the particulars of mining in the silver boom town of Leadville, CO: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100734628

 

 

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