Hello, Virtually Readers! Your, that is, my, favourite discussion feature is back again. Setting in Stone is a series where I explore many assumptions inherent in settings in books, spurred by enthusiasm for this post. You can read all the Setting in Stone posts by clicking the ‘setting in stone’ tag at the bottom of this one. Today, I’m discussing how setting is researched. This information is derived from reading/listening to various authors talking about their research process plus common sense. I’m going to outline the different ways to research setting, and their advantages and disadvantages as I see it.
Method One: Visit the place
If you live in the place which you’re writing about, this is pretty easy; you probably know your location fairly well. However, if specific locations are important to the story, you may need to go there to get relevant details, or if you’re making a fictional place, you will need to figure out where it is, at least roughly. The advantages of going to the place that you’re researching is that you get a feel for what a place is like and understand the context that your characters will exist within. However, if you are a visitor, you will experience the place differently than your characters (most of whom are probably local) and it’s important to bear this in mind. For example, as a local in my town, I have never been on the cable car or the wax museum, which tourists might be interested in. Instead, the vegetable sellers and stationary store is more important to me. Alternatively, if you live somewhere and your character does not, you need to think about how their experience will differ from yours (especially if you’re changing other details, like adding magic or setting it in the future)
Method Two: Talk to people from the place
Even if you live somewhere, everyone’s experience differs. Talk to other people who know your setting well about how they feel about it, details that might be relevant, how the story of their lives intersects with the place you live. If you don’t live in the place you’re setting your book, it’s especially important to get a local’s perspective, and if you’re concerned about the setting and culture (which is part of setting), find a sensitivity reader, who will check your details. The culture difference between Wellington and Dunedin might not be a big deal, but the difference between Ukraine and Uganda certainly is. When you’re not familiar with a place, and you’re writing about it, you’re carrying all sorts of assumptions about how something works, and make sure you check those with a local. For example, in some Indian universities, students have to wear uniforms, and traffic lights here are a) uncommon and b) have a countdown timer. Those are two little details that may make a difference (or at least manifest) in your story. The advantages of this method is an insider’s perspective, and the disadvantage is finding people who are willing to help you (not many Ukrainians live in Georgia, as I understand it), but the internet is a helpful tool as well.
Method Three: Read about the place (or other distance learning methods)
Find a newspaper from the relevant location, and read that. Read novels and travel writing set in the place. Look into its history. How are these important to your story? This method requires time. In many of the places with underrepresented settings, there isn’t much information, or you’ll have to hunt harder for it. This is where your friendly local research librarian (if you have one) comes in handy. You need to be committed, you need to take notes, and as you read, you need to go back to those notes. The disadvantages of this is that answers aren’t instant: this is labour intensive and time consuming. Some sources (e.g. blogs, novels, travel writing) will also carry biases which you need to be aware of. The advantages are that you can search directly for the information you need and get a range of useful details.
Really, all of these methods should be used together to paint a picture of the location you wish to evoke. Or at least two should be combined. If you’re writing speculative fiction, but inspired by real places and cultures, it’s also important to think through details. How can you make a culture, place, and people alive while still incorporating fantastical or technological details in a way that makes sense in that context. If you’re not familiar with a place, this is especially important.
Appropriation—or using a culture and place in a way that is harmful or unfair—is a problem, and can manifest in all sorts of ways (again, this is why you should consult real people who have lived or are living in the setting of your story), and speculative fiction seems to be especially prone to this. But with good research and support, you can avoid this. Just be respectful.
There are obviously other ways to research a place you’re writing about. As I’ve often complained about, third world settings are horrible uncommon in popular English fiction, and that’s something that needs to change. But stereotypes won’t help, and decent, thorough research that underlies a narrative will make it strong. I’m by no means perfect in my own writing, but I’m trying.
So, writers, how do you research setting? And how does research influence the story? let me know (as always) in the comments!