Tuesday, January 4
Let's Get Ready to Write! Researching Your Novel: Setting
Although I write fantasy, I do think that any world--fantasy or otherwise--can benefit from world building. Knowing where your story is set will determine the inherent problems your characters will face. Challenges in Manhattan are different from those in Montana. So even if you're writing about a gal from Ipanema, setting plays a big role.
For this post, let's assume you have a basic idea of the book you want to write. (coming up with ideas is another post) You know the general idea and are looking to develop that idea. This is the time when having nothing but a premise is just fine. You may not know what the core conflict is until you learn more about the story and its world.
With fantasy, the entire world needs to be created, so real world writers have a leg up here. You can go right ahead and start researching the place you've chosen. For those who don't know yet, it's time to pick or create a location.
If you're not set on a particular place yet, you might try looking at settings that match the tone of the story. A tale about isolation might work best in them middle of nowhere, or you might want to play off contrasts and set it in the biggest city in the world. A story with a character with a troubled past could work well somewhere where that past can do the most damage if revealed. Or a location that also has a trouble past to layer in your theme or character arcs.
Where Do You See This Story?
City or small town? Urban or rural? Rich or poor? Traditional or exotic? Hot or cold? Wet or dry? Is there a theme you want to explore? A character trait or background? Is there a culture you've always been fascinated with? A place? Look for details that sticks out and pique your interest. It doesn't matter if they're all over the place. I mixed Africa and Venice to create my city of Geveg.
Now Hit the Web
Take those basic descriptions and look up places that fit them. Some you'll throw out right away, but some will spark ideas, and you'll immediately see tons of possibilities on how your idea can fit into it. Find several places that work? Use them all if it works for your story. Unless you need to be accurate (like it's set in the real world in a known place) then you can mix and match and pull what you like. You don't need to delve deep at this point (unless you want to). The goal is to find ideas and get the brain thinking.
I like to look at the history of a place for ideas. Past shames create interesting dynamics between a people and a place, and those could be conflicts you can play with in your story. Obstacles that were overcome to settle there can be a source of pride that still exists years later. Risks taken to live there might be problems that occur to muck things up for your protagonist.
Geography and Climate
These details affect how people live, what they eat, how they make a living.What trees grown, what animals live there. What people there fear or have to protect themselves against. It can also determine religious views or morality. A port city is used to folks of all types coming and going, while a secluded mountaintop village might be more suspicious of those who are different. Where we live affects who we are, both on a community and individual level.
All cultures believe in something, and there will be variances even within those beliefs. Places with religious diversity will react to things differently than one with a central doctrine. How they live will reflect those beliefs same as any other defining characteristic. Look at the pyramids in Egypt. The great cathedrals of Europe. Shrines in Asia. Beliefs changed the look of the landscape, and that landscape played a part in how that culture developed.
Narrow Down What Interests You
Eventually you'll have a stack of notes (or a folder of bookmarked sites) with all the things that made you think "ooo, that's cool." Look for things that really clicked with you. The ones that sparked ideas right away. Now, research those in more depth. Read books on the topics, travel guides, histories, biographies of important people, whatever grabs you. Take notes. Highlight sections and mark them to go back to. Create a file or folder and put in everything you think you can use or that inspires you. Write down how those things might fit into your story, even if they're just questions like: "Could something like this be part of the protagonist's past?"
Realize You're Not Using it All
You're looking for ideas and jumping off points, not information to tell the reader. You want your research to flesh out your setting and story so it feels real, not show that you did a lot of research and isn't this stuff really cool. That stuff stands out like bad product placement.
Craft Your Setting
Describe your world (be it a town, a city, a planet or a galaxy) and how it works. How day-to-day life works so I know how my protagonist lives day to day. Whatever details you like to use, get samples of those in there. Like what buildings look like, plants, animals, weather, ethnic traits, topography, technology, smells, sounds, textures, art styles, etc. This is where the research really pays off later, because you'll have descriptive details ready to go when you need them. Just look up what plants grow or what buildings there are made with and hand them to your protagonist.
Let Your Research Guide You, but Not Control You
In the end, you should have a good idea of how this setting is going to aid your story. A good setting will have inherent conflicts that work with your plot or theme, let you show aspects of your characters in a way that flows naturally into the narrative, and helps convey some back story. It belongs with the story, and changing the location actually hurts the tale.
And it'll feel like you planned it all along, and didn't just plop your protagonist somewhere.
How much research do you do on your novels?