If you write contemporary fiction, you’ve probably run into the problem of choosing a setting. A story’s setting is as influential to the plot as the characters who populate it. A book set in Paris will be vastly different from one set in a small Midwestern town. But what if you’ve never been to the locations in your story? How important is accuracy? The short answer: Authentic details bring settings to life.
One of the first full-length novels I wrote as a teenager was set in Detroit, MI. I finished the story only to realize that it was implausible because I hadn’t researched my setting.
The best way to get the feel of a place is to explore it. However, that’s not always possible. Writers can’t hop on a plane and fly to Detroit or Paris or the Midwest at whim, so you need to be resourceful and use the internet to your advantage.
1. Browse for Pictures
If you’re writing about a real business, town, or landmark, you need to be able to describe its appearance, and searching for images online can help. Business websites and Facebook pages often feature photo albums, which can give you a glimpse at the exteriors and interiors of hotels, museums, and restaurants. To survey a town’s full layout, try Street View on Google Earth.
Even if your story happens in a city, the surrounding geography may still be relevant. In my Detroit story, my main character rode his motorcycle to his friend’s house in the country. If I’d done research, I would have realized that Detroit covers 143 square miles, and the area immediately outside of it is densely populated. His afternoon trip should have consumed a whole weekend.
2. Verify Distances
If a reader has never traveled to your setting, you might get away with saying that a character strode down the street from the Irma Hotel in Cody, WY to Trail Town in five minutes. But if a reader has ever been there, he’s going to scream, “Fake news!” In reality, walking the 2.6 miles from the Irma Hotel to Trail Town takes fifty minutes.
Google Maps works wonders. Just type in a starting point and a destination, and it will calculate the miles and time needed to drive, walk, or bicycle.
3. Make Phone Inquiries
Sometimes you can call businesses and ask specific questions that a Google search can’t answer. In my dystopian novel set in Cody, WY, my main character locks his hotel door. But then I remembered that most hotels have keycards, which wouldn’t function without electricity. A quick phone call confirmed this, and I modified the story accordingly.
Alternatively, you could use the contact form or live chat on a business website or Facebook page. You’ll want to explain that you’re doing research for a book and be courteous of the employees’ time so that their customers aren’t neglected.
4. Check Out Local Attractions
When you decide on a setting, Google popular activities in that area. Tourism websites list top attractions, dining, and accommodations. Even if your setting is a little town with no draw for tourists, investigating nearby sights will show you where your character might go for fun. He may never visit any of the places you find, but if people flock to a particular attraction during the summer, that swell in population will affect how he interacts with his surroundings.
5. Narrow Your Focus
Most stories won’t span an entire city, especially if it’s a large one. For my dystopia, I limited my research to the businesses along the main highway through town, because that’s where 90 percent of the story occurs.
Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to learn every detail about every suburb of a major city. Figure out what your story needs. A high school? A high crime rate? A park close by? Hunt for those elements in your chosen region until you hit upon the combination you need.
6. Evaluate Population and Demographics
A town’s occupants and the prominent nationalities are key factors in achieving realism.
My hometown has two hundred people, plus a bar, gas station, bank, and post office, but not much else. The town I live in now has one thousand residents. We have two grocery stores, three restaurants, two hotels, a school, and much more. A character living in my current town would have more options readily available than she would in my hometown.
Demographics and a town’s history will also heavily influence your story. Where I live we have lots of people of Polish descent. The town hosts a yearly celebration called Polish Days, we eat Polish Dogs, and many last names include ski or ich. Details like that will enrich your story and make it unique.
7. Consider the Climate
When you think of London, you probably imagine the fog that creeps across the pages of every book set there. Washington state tends to be rainy, and Arizona is hot and dry.
Climate can be a character in itself, and familiarity with the local weather patterns will help you add layers to your story world. With Google you can search average temperatures throughout the year, as well as rain and snowfall amounts, humidity, and what types of storms are prevalent.
8. Take a Trip
Nothing can compete with experiencing your setting in person. Google won’t provide all the sensory details of strolling down the streets yourself. So, if at all possible, plan a trip and pack a notebook to fill with notes.
If your actual setting is too far away, substitute someplace comparable. For instance, I’m unlikely to ever visit Chicago. However, a two-hour drive brings me to my state capital, which could clue me in to life in a big city.
Before heading out, prepare a list of the major questions you have and places you need to see. If you have a connection to someone who lives there, contact them and ask for suggestions. Create a strategy that’s efficient for your time and budget.
Quality, Not Quantity
Even when setting a story in the real world, world building is still crucial. These steps will put you on the path to accurately describe and breathe life into your settings. But while you’re learning all these wonderful details, be careful not to bury your story. Scatter the information throughout instead of dumping it on readers all at once. Be selective about which tidbits you include in the finished product. A few intriguing details that enhance your characters and plot will be more effective than pages and pages of textbook facts.
Crafting a setting is similar to developing a character. Just like you don’t want to overload characters with meaningless backstory and random quirks, your setting needs to push the story forward, not hold it back. Now, where will your next story take place?
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and son. Her gaslight short story, “Red as Blood,” won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.