I’m currently writing my fourth Petal in the Wind novel, which takes place in Prague. Having spent a week there ten years ago, it roused happy memories. I felt as if I were back in the city, if only on the page. However, I recently experienced that sensation of “being there” in another way.
In addition to my historical series, I’m also working on a contemporary mystery set in a fictionalized SoCal town. Stratford, where my heroine Iris lives, serves as a stand-in for Thousand Oaks, California.
You may recall the name – it’s where another mass shooting occurred last November in the Borderline Bar and Grill. I suspect you watched the story unfurl on television, shocked, but not surprised that another senseless slaughter had taken place. Maybe you shook your head and said, “Not again.” You felt sadness for the young victims, compassion and sorrow for their families, like every other time this has happened.
For me, this time was different. Very different.
There’s a scene in my novel where Iris abandons her car and runs when she realizes the men chasing her are not reporters, but hitmen. That spot is across the street from the Borderline.
A gut punch of foreboding struck me as I watched the coverage, wondering if I knew any of the victims or their families. I worked in Thousand Oaks for nearly twenty years. Having lived two blocks from the club, walked or driven by it countless times, I recognized every detail of the TV footage – the building where the shooting took place, the street where the ambulances parked, the gas station down the street. My mind became a camera following the action. I could envision every inch of the route as the ambulances raced to the hospital, the layout in the ER where the victims would be taken, the doors separating it from the waiting room where their families would pace, anxiously awaiting news. I can describe that room down to the pattern of the carpet.
The experience gave me a new appreciation of the importance of setting in stories. Writers may create interesting characters and provide a compelling narrative, but they neglect that third part of the trinity. Creating that “being there” sense in writing really draws you into the story.
Last year our blog published Patricia Smiley’s superb post on the importance of setting. But how does a writer create that “boots on the ground” feeling when writing about a present-day location they don’t know well? One option is traveling to the places you’re writing about. Nothing else will compare. However, if that isn’t possible, then consider the next best thing to being there.
Thanks to internet sites like Google Maps, you can take a virtual tour of any neighborhood. Practice on a place you’re familiar with, like the area where you grew up, went to college, or used to work. “Walk” the streets to see what the predominating architecture looks like, what shops line the avenues, how folks are dressed, the types and condition of cars. You might find the field where you used to play hide-and-seek is now a shopping mall, the yeasty aroma that wafted from your favorite bakery has been replaced by the perfume of exotic spices from the Indian restaurant that recently opened.
When you pick your site, visit it often until you have a feel for the neighborhood. If you’re creating a fictitious location, give it an authentic feel by basing it on an existing locale. Need a place with lots of open space and wilderness? Check out areas near national parks in Utah, Washington and Wyoming. For a once grand area that’s fallen on hard times, look at rust belt cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. One caveat: note the recording date. With a world to document, some of the images may be several years old and potentially inaccurate.
Many cities and towns have travel bureaus or chambers of commerce. Their websites will give you a capsule version of the more positive aspects of the place. Contacting the police department for blotter information will help with the less positive. Local libraries can also provide statistics; reports, ads and calendars in regional newspapers will give a sense of what’s going on.
Be creative. Seek information on local vegetation from area nurseries, botanical societies or hiking groups like the Sierra Club and American Hiking Society. Contact the Wildlife Society and the Audubon Society for information about fauna. A general or special interest travel guide for your locale will provide valuable information (take advantage of your AAA membership). Do a search on a travel website like Tripadvisor. Local lodging, restaurants and activities say a lot about an area. While researching this post, I discovered niche.com, an online rank and review site that evaluates places based on criteria like schools, job prospects, housing and cost of living.
Go beyond geography. Think weather patterns and geology, their potential to add a layer of crisis or provide a much needed respite to your action. Are there any iconic structures, significant history or landmarks associated with your locale?
These tips will help you research locations, but how do you go about finding them? One way is to seek out real estate sections in newspapers or online through realtors. Investigate houses for sale and rental properties. They will give you a baseline of the character and economic health of different neighborhoods, often mentioning if the area is trendy, noted for good schools, or otherwise desirable. Another is to search the internet for legitimate articles (as opposed to paid ads) about topics related to your location. Aside from statistics, any accompanying photographs and interviews with residents will offer a more first-hand perspective.
For example, if I needed to set my story in a struggling West Coast farm community, I might base it on East Porterville, California. The Tulare County town has been seriously impacted by drought, based on a Reuters article I found. Quotes from locals interviewed for the piece would provide great insight into character development as well as plot. Of the five homes I found for sale, three are in foreclosure auctions. Satellite images of the town show modest one story homes, one market, an auto shop, older middle-class cars and pick-ups parked in driveways, and a parched landscape. Although the images are two years old, the article, Zillow and niche.com concur that life has not improved there. Worse, the community abuts Porterville, a suburban city thriving with shopping malls, parks and a medical center. With my research complete, I would weigh the information against its relevance to the plot or characters.
A compelling plot and well-drawn characters are critical to good writing, but the ability to create a realistic setting enhances the experience. Take advantage of the many tools available to help bring that sense of “being there” to your story, and if you have other sites or resources you like, please share them with us.
Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org