Details in Setting: 3 Steps to Write Somewhere You've Never Been
"Write what you know" is one thing, but if we all stuck to place we've been, we'd miss out on some awesome stories. Today I'm talking about how to make places you've never been zip and zing off the page.
Step One: Is your place real or imaginary?
If it's real, you're good to go. If it's imaginary, where's it like? What place on earth could it be? It certainly doesn't have to be identical, but having a particular place in mind will help ensure you don't put tropical parrots in a Welsh forest. Which, trust me, will drive your ornithologist readers (and they do exist) crazy. If your place is real but your story's set in the past, you may find it more helpful to compare it to somewhere else. For instance, if your story's set in the past of a town that's very developed these days, perhaps you want to research a neighbouring town that's better preserved?
Step Two: Turn to your senses.
For each of the five senses, make a list of things that might register. For example, if I went to the beach near my house early this morning (keeping in mind it's winter), I'd have:
Sight: Dense fog, a spit of land covered in dark rockpoolsfading out into the silver, perfectly still water that merges with the fog, creamy sand, dark patches of beached seaweed. Touch: Soft sand, squishy clumps of seaweed, slippery, uneven rocks, clammy air. Sound: Distant hum of an occasional car, my footsteps crunching on the sand, nothing else. Smell: Salt, decomposing seaweed. Taste: The tea I had before leaving home, tangy salt.
So that's everything that comes immediately to mind, and you probably have an image in your head now. But what if I wanted to write about a Victorian ballroom? I can imagine it, but I have no idea if I'm right, and just as importantly, no idea if I'm missing lots of awesome details that would make it real. What I'd do is brainstorm what I might find. Keep in mind I'm totally pulling this stuff out of thin air -- at this stage it may or may not be true.
Sight: Lots of colourful dresses swirling as ladies turn, some sort of lighting (lamps, candles, chandeliers??), guys in suits, hands holding fans? Touch: Wearing gloves? Holding a fan or a glass? Wooden floor under feet? Lots of bodies quite close, making it warm? Sound: Music, people talking? Who's politely able to talk to whom? Smell: People sweating? Food? What kind? Perfume? What kind? Taste: Food (what kind, served how?), drinks?I have a lot more question marks on this unfamiliar ground. So now I turn to...
Step Three: Hit the media.
Quality historical shows (BBC's Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey)
Documentaries (I love The Supersizers, but there are so many)
Contemporary books (Dickens, which was written during Victorian times, or whatever's relevant)
Non-fiction, especially with pictures
If recent enough, people who lived then
Google street view if contemporary (true story, I once changed a WIP after using it to inspect a building, then discovering an awesome escape route park next door!)
Creative options -- for a book set on a spaceship, could you tour one on the NASA website?
Jet-setting aside, what have you done to create a realistic world? Add your suggestions!