How to Research {Place} For Your Novel

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One of my favorite things about writing is research. I love finding facts, understanding world views, and stepping into a unique story world.

And one of my favorite parts of research is researching the settings/locations of my novels. You may consider setting to be the physical location, but it’s so much more than that. The place of your novel includes the physical location, but it also includes the attitudes of the people of the region as a group and as individuals. <click to tweet>

For example, my co-author Ocieanna and I wrote Love Finds You in Glacier Bay, Alaska. We travelled there, and we hung out with the locals. The independent spirits, tight-knit community, and resourcefulness of the people were unlike anything I’ve ever known. Many of the attitudes and even comments from the residents made it into the novel. The book had a bit of quirkiness and resoluteness that isn’t seen in many of my novels, for the simple reason of what I’ve discovered when I researched the place.

Place is more than landscape, street names, and natural features. Place even changes as times change. I live in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is completely different now compared to the violence and struggle of the days of the Civil Rights movement. One place, but different “places” in history.

Places I’ve “lived” in my novels:

  • Female pilot’s training base on the homefront during World War II
  • Pearl Harbor
  • In the jungles of the Philippines during World War II
  • The battle fields of Europe
  • In a concentration camp
  • On the Titanic
  • On the unsettled plains of Montana in 1890
  • In Madrid, Spain during the Civil War
  • In a small community in Alaska
  • In Seattle, Washington near a B-17 bomber base
  • On a “modern” farm in Nebraska
  • In Amish communities in Indiana, Ohio, and Montana

Through research I’ve been able to experience each of these places. And this is how I research:

  1. Study the region through maps and photos.
  2. Visit if possible. (I’ve bee able to visit most of my settings.)
  3. Meet people and talk to residents who live there. Here are some questions to ask:
    What is this place known for?
    What type of people live here?
    What do you like best about living here?
    What’s difficult about living here?
    Tell me about the types of people who live in this area.
    What would surprise an outsider about this area?
    Where do the tourists hang out?
    Where do the locals hang out?
    Are there any local myths or legends?
    Do you have a historical society?
    Who are some of the more well-known residents past or present?
    What stories do you find yourself telling others about the area?

When I talk to folks, I like to audio record them so I can go back to the conversation later. I also have a notebook to write down key words of things I want to remember. But the best way to interview is to write as little as possible and just make eye contact with the person you’re talking to. This is the best way to make him or her feel comfortable. It’s then that the stories start to flow.

If you’re writing historical fiction, the best thing to do is find memoirs or biographies. Memoirs are the best because they give an “insider’s view” into the thoughts of the people during that time period. Some of my best research finds were self-published WWII memoirs. The thoughts and attitudes captured often mold my novels. (Remember that memoirs are just one person’s opinion. Make sure they match up the recollections with the history books because memory can’t always be trusted when it comes to actual dates and events.)

Scroll through Google images. People’s vacation photos make great research . . . and are often much more accurate than the travel brochures.

Make sure you document where you got your information. Even brief comments in a notebook will help. And if you find information in books, photocopy the page the information is on and the title page of the book, and staple them together. You never know when you’ll need to go back to this information.

Don’t feel you have to research everything. Like author Jody Hedlund says in her blog post “4 Tips for Researching a Novel,” Go deep but stay narrow. “I try to narrow down exactly what I need to know for my particular story. I don’t have to learn everything about England after the Restoration. I lay the beginning foundation . . . but I don’t need to acquire a PhD in English Civil War history in order to research the pillory and its usage for the poor of the 1600s. I dig deep for what I need and don’t get side-tracked by all the rest.”

This is wise advice. After you get a general knowledge of the area, figure out what you need to know about the most, and focus on that. Does your novel center around the old mill, the high school, the governor’s mansion? To read more of Jody’s advice go here.

Other things to research: religion, climate, economics, and social norms. All these can be used in your novel to craft conflict.

Which leads me to my final point. Don’t think of setting as simply a backdrop, as in a play. Through every step of research ask, “Can this bit of information bring conflict in my novel? Does this conflict fit with my story?”

Novels are about characters overcoming problems, and setting/place has numerous ways to provide conflict and make your novel seem true-to-life, not only by those unfamiliar to the area, but those who know the place. There is no greater praise than to have a local tell you that you got it right. It’s then you know your research paid off—not only in your story, but also by honoring the locals who call the place home.

Now your turn: What are your best tips for research?

For photos of my novel research, go here.

Example of my research on Lebensborn homes in Nazi Germany, go here.

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Comments

  1. Great article, Tricia. I’m, researching a new WIP and getting ready to take a trip there. I love this phase and try to use the place as character. 🙂

  2. Andrea Cox says:

    Fabulous pointers, Tricia. I especially appreciate the interview questions. My brain always freezes up when I have to do an interview.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Andrea

  3. Great post! Thanks for the great tips 🙂

  4. Michael McClellan says:

    Great article Tricia, thank you. I have also found Google Earth to be a tremendous help to my research. My fantasy novel is set in Africa and I use Google Earth to make sure I have my protagonist’s journey oriented properly. There is also a National Geographic layer that provides articles about the regions I am exploring. I would love to travel there for my research, but this is the next best and affordable alternative right now.

  5. This is a very helpful article, especially the questions to ask people about their location. Thanks! I found your site via Pinterest. 🙂

  6. Genevieve says:

    Thank you for your post, it really gives good insight to your writing process! It would help me teach my kids how to research for a novel, that is if they ever would like to write one! Plus, I’m a big fan of your novels and enjoy reading them!

  7. I LOVED this post – I am from Ireland, but am setting my first Cozy Mystery in Bournemouth, UK so I will be checking out these options. Until now I was just planning on using Google Maps!

Trackbacks

  1. […] might have never visited (or at lease in a time you’ve never visited). We were given a great article by Tricia Goyer about how to place your story in a setting. You do have to research the place and looking at maps […]

  2. […] Take a tip from contemporary novels and make your settings stand out. This is a hallmark in urban fantasy, where the setting can be so major that it is almost a main character. To research your setting, check out this article. […]

  3. […] Take a tip from contemporary novels and make your settings stand out. This is a hallmark in urban fantasy, where the setting can be so major that it is almost a main character. To research your setting, check out this article. […]

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