Researching Setting for Fiction Writers

I remember when, in the midst of finishing up my thesis (a labor of love), someone said that doing a creative thesis must be easy because it didn’t require any research.

What? I was floored. I’d done a lot of research for that manuscript, and I continue to. Even writing a fantasy novel requires research. I’ve studied everything from mythology to martial arts to swords to types of knots. But since I write urban fantasy that bridges our world and other worlds, much of my research is setting specific.

We can’t always write novels based in places we’ve lived. I love where I grew up (Western PA) and where I live now (Virginia), but I’m not prepared to base every story in those places. Sometimes, the story dictates a different setting.

When you create your own world, it’s coming from your head (or the creative ether, however you look at it), so you don’t have to worry which highway a character would take to get from point A to point B or how long the drive is. As long as your world is clear and consistent within a story or series, you’re good to go.

But place is a strong and emotional thing. It’s not just a matter of fact-checking. We form deep, emotional connections to places we love and live in, and those seemingly tiny details can draw readers out of a story if they’re not correct.

What kinds of details do we need to worry about when researching a setting?

Geography: It’s not the most exciting stuff, but we need to know the highways and byways. If your characters take Route 101 and there isn’t any such road in that region, people familiar with that place will know. The names of districts, famous landmarks, parks, rivers, etc. are important to people from the area (or who simply love that place), so doing research–even if it’s just a thorough use of Google Maps or Earth–is essential. Looking at pictures can also help you capture the essence of a place. The Shenandoah Valley and the Great Smokies feel and look different, for example.

Flora and fauna: I grew up in the country, so this kind of thing is important to me. I want to hear about the cherry blossoms, the daffodils, the white-tailed deer, the birdsongs, the coyote yelps, or the jack-o-pines. I highly recommend books like “The North American Wildlife Guide.” It’s helpful to know the range of a given species, for example. But we also need to know about things like the seasons (my hometown in PA frequently gets snow in late March and April; where a friend lives in New Mexico, it was 100 degrees last week) or the common types of birds, wildlife, and trees (lots of pines in one place, a plethora of birches in another).

Local flavor: I love to travel, and my favorite part is that every place has its own unique flair. I love tiny beach towns with their hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurants, big cities with everything to offer and their famous locales, college towns where even the license plates have school spirit. The setting should never overwhelm the story. (If we’re in San Francisco, you don’t have to shout it. Ubiquitous references to the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t necessary.) Subtle is necessary, but authenticity in tiny details is key. It’s everything from architecture (the houses in a Western PA mining town are not the same style you’d find in New Hampshire, for example) to roadways (PA is in an unending state of road construction) to food. Keep it authentic, but be sure to avoid cliches and stereotypes. If you’re going to go for colloquialisms, keep them subtle and remember that not everyone from a region uses them, or uses them frequently. (Personal disclaimer: My cousins used to knock my accent, so, though I’m proud of my heritage, I’m a bit sensitive about this subject.)

Making it up: It’s okay to make up a shop, a hotel, or a restaurant. A made-up street or address is useful to avoid using a real address. There’s nothing wrong with inventing a new-age shop or a burger joint to insert into your story, as long as it fits into that town.

The law: Every state (and country, if you’re going global) not only has its own unique flavor, but its own set of laws. Some states (or cities) are stricter about enforcing speed limits. Certain types of weapons are illegal in some states. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law requiring bikers to wear motorcycle helmets, but many states do. Everything from traffic laws to marriage laws to statutes of limitations varies from one state to another. Legal intricacies mostly come into play if you’re writing suspense or a legal thriller, but knowing the law in your chosen location is important.

Tiny details: There are other details that require research. For example, in MADE OF SHADOWS, the heroine, Zoe, played rugby in college. I had to make sure that the school I chose as her alma mater actually had a women’s rugby team. (Not every school does.) If your character works in or has studied a specialized field, making sure that university actually offers the degree is a must. If your character has a specialization in ceramics, biomedical engineering, or Celtic studies, it’s best to make sure that university offers that degree program. If we goof on the minutiae, our readers might start to question other parts of the story.

So besides this wonderful thing called the Internet and our stacks of books, how do we ensure that we’re getting it right? Any suggestions? As for me, I might not be the most adventurous person out there, but I’m always game for a road trip.

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5 ways to eliminate –ly words from our writing

Among advice frequently bestowed upon writers is avoiding the adverb trap. Adverbs are those lovely little words—often ending in –ly—that modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. They don’t always end in –ly, of course. That’s a very pretty sweater; really, it’s just too cute.

Life Preserver

Don't leave your readers drowning in a sea of -ly words.

But –ly adverbs are especially tricky because they’re easy to use. We dress up our writing with them, and before we know it, our readers are drowning in a sea of adverbs. It’s easy to start pouring –ly words onto the page, especially in early drafts. The trick is to pluck enough of these words out as we revise so that the reader isn’t constantly being bombarded by adverbs.

As I was revising one of my WIPs, I stumbled across a couple pages in which –ly words were running amok. I began to notice the repetition, so I went through and circled every –ly word. Yep. Way too many.

After I’d weeded the scene of excess adverbs, I figured I would gather up a few of my tricks for reducing adverb usage.

1.)  Simply delete the –ly word. Perhaps it wasn’t adding anything to the sentence. When we delete it, does the meaning of the sentence change or become vague? If not, the simplest solution might be best: Do away with the word altogether. This is often the case when an adverb modifies an adjective. “He was absolutely irresistible,” could become, “He was irresistible.”

And –ly words aren’t the only adverbs to watch out for. Mark Twain once said of the adverb “very”: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” In other words, if our character is very angry, why can’t he just be angry? Or, here’s another possibility:

2.)  Choose stronger adjectives. Maybe a stronger adjective is called for altogether. Maybe he isn’t very angry, he’s seething, raging, livid, or furious. Maybe we don’t just need to lose the adverb. Maybe we need a different adjective as well.

3.)  Choose stronger verbs. Perhaps no verb gets modified more than “said.” Are we echoing words like said, touched, smiled, walked, looked, etc.? If so, maybe we initially used an adverb for some variety. What if we try using a stronger verb that can convey the connotation without needing to be modified? Consider this dialogue tag: “… she said heatedly.” What if we replaced said with challenged, demanded, or argued? We’ve varied our word choice and eliminated the need for an adverb here.

4.)  Use concrete, creative description. Sometimes the solution is trickier, and what’s really needed is a reworking of the sentence to craft a more powerful sentence construct. Or, if we find too many adverbs peppering a scene, it might be that more concrete details are called for to let the reader into the scene.

For example, consider this passage: He pressed his hand lightly against her arm. She turned swiftly away. He sighed frustratedly. What if we just get creative here and expand the scene?

Instead we try: His touch might have been light, but it sent warmth radiating through her nonetheless. And that sensation confused the hell out of her. She put a little distance between them. He sighed, curling his fingers, no doubt frustrated with her mixed signals.

The revision beats the initial adverb-laden passage. In the first version, the adverbs are telling. In the second version, nouns and verbs do the bulk of the work.

5.)  Let it stand. Not every –ly word needs to be eliminated from our writing.  A well-used adverb here and there can be more powerful than ten poorly used ones. Consider these sentences from Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Secret:

“Finally, they were getting somewhere. And shockingly, there was thick, dewy foliage sprouting from the rocks. Nice, she thought, until…” (End excerpt, page 182. I don’t want to give it away.)

See? Adverbs aren’t evil, but they are easy to overuse.

The bottom line is that a scene should be strong enough to come alive on the page without adverbs to prop it up. Nouns and verbs should always do the heavy lifting. If they’re not, we need to step back and figure out what’s missing. Not enough description? Too much passive voice? Too many weak verbs or sentence constructs? Or are we worried that our characters aren’t coming through clearly enough? Sometimes overuse of adverbs is purely accidental. Other times, it might signify a broader issue with a scene. Maybe it isn’t where it needs to be yet.

What approach do you take to adverbs when editing? Do you have any tricks of your own you’d like to share?