Last week a commenter on my blog asked a question about how to research a setting you don’t know well — or one you’ve never been to at all. I had been thinking about this very thing lately!
Fantasy and science fiction writers have to go to the trouble of inventing a whole new world, but unless they have inconsistencies, nobody can say they got their facts wrong. Historical writers have to do a lot of research, but they only face criticism for inaccuracies from people who know about the period (or at least, from people who believe that they do.)
Researching real-life, present-day settings for stories is harder. Plenty of people know more about it than you do.
My romance novella Wicked Garden, which is coming out in a boxed set this fall, is set in Savannah. When I first started writing it, I didn’t realize that it was a perfect place to set my ghost story — many people consider Savannah one of the most haunted cities in the United States. In fact, I didn’t know much about Savannah at all.
I was lucky enough to get to visit Savannah this past spring, which did give me a little extra inspiration. Here are a couple of gratuitous photos — me + live oaks, and a statue in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Spending some time in the place that’s the setting for your story is ideal. However, it’s often impossible.
In the case of this story, I had already written a complete first draft before I visited Savannah. Here are a few ways I learn about places, and I bet you have some suggestions, too!
This is my number one favorite resource for researching settings. You can find all kinds of tours of cities and regions, and videos of snippets of life there. These range from professional segments made for television to casual videos with only a handful of views, which can be just as helpful. Even if you do searches on specific locales or experiences, such as restaurants or hikes, you’re likely to find something.
I’ve used Youtube to research lots of things in addition to settings: figuring out choreography for fights, understanding how to handle a Glock, and even describing a bear attack accurately. (Watching videos of bears attacking people made me feel like a horrible human being, but one does want to get this stuff right.)
This is specific to the United States. City-Data has a lot of forums where people ask questions like, “What is Savannah really like?” and locals give their answers. Google “city-data.com (name of your city)” and see what comes up.
3. Ex-pat blogs.
This is specific to international locations. Lots of English speakers who live in foreign countries like writing about their experiences in blogs. A good Google search for this is “blog living in (name of the place you’re researching).”
Admittedly, it might be better to read a blog about daily life from someone who grew up there. However, they might not write in English or a language you read, and because it’s just their normal life, they are less likely to blog about the details.
4. Books about living abroad and memoirs of living abroad.
Similar to the above. “Ex-pat memoir (place you’re researching)” or “living abroad (place you’re researching)” are good searches on Amazon or the Barnes and Noble website.
5. Put out a call for an expert on Facebook.
On Facebook, you’re connected to a bunch of people. All of them are also connected to a bunch of people! Post something like this:
Hi, I’m writing a story set in Armenia and I’d love to talk to someone who lives or has lived there! Please share this post. Thank you so much!
You’re likely to find somebody that you can interview. If you don’t, well, the worst thing that can happen is that you took three minutes out of your day and reminded everybody you’re a writer who works on interesting things.
6. Books and movies set in the same place as your story.
The one caveat here is that you’ll want to scan reviews and make sure that author or director got the setting right.
Most people will forgive small mistakes. If I see a TV episode set in Kansas City and everyone is wearing cowboy hats, I roll my eyes. If they make a smaller gaffe, I don’t really care. Hey, they tried.
I don’t think the fear of making errors should keep you from choosing a setting that’s less familiar to you. One of the reasons a lot of us write is because we want to experience more than we could ever fit into one lifetime. And one of the most overlooked benefits of writing is that it spurs us to learn.
Do you have advice on researching places? I bet you do. Please share in the comments! Thanks for reading, and have a great week!