HELP!!  WHERE AM I?  Or, Researching Your Story's Setting
by Lesley-Anne McLeod


Every story must exist within time and space.  That space, the setting, must be as real to the reader as the room in which they sit to read your story.  Character may dictate plot and setting; plot may move characters and inspire a setting; in some cases, setting will influence plot, and create characters.  In all three situations, the setting has vital importance.  Ben Nyberg, author of "One Way to Write Great Short Stories" says "failed fiction lacks the grit and heft of 'documentary' evidence to give it substance."  If you don't portray your setting thoroughly, you're only telling part of the story.

Your setting can be as simple as a single room, or as broad as the universe.  But it is not just place, it utilizes all five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing.  And your description of it must be detailed enough to create the illusion of reality.  Mr. Nyberg again, "with enough detail you can narrow anything down to the point of uniqueness".

If you choose to set your story in a single room, it can be as evocative as "Around the World in 80 Days".  But you must examine how the room smells, every detail of how it looks, what sounds you can hear while sitting quietly in the room, what the furnishings feel like, and what the food in the room (if any) tastes like.  If your room is in western Canada, in a middle-sized city or the countryside, you may not have to do any research outside of your own head.  You can pull the data you need from the lifelong research files of your brain.  If however your story's room setting is in Burma, you need help.  Everything is outside your experience.

And now you are into serious research.  The first and fastest place to go today for information is the Internet.  Use a reliable search engine, and don't be afraid to ask the same question of several engines.  They all have different listings.  Keep your questions specific.  If you need information on Burma, narrow your search as much as possible--request "Burma+travel+geography" or "Burma+real estate+housing".  There will be sites from government, industry, retail and manufacture.  The only problem will be to separate wheat from chaff!

But the Internet will only give you facts.  If you want a human touch, up to the minute personal information about a foreign country, try talking to immigrants, or the interesting folks who belong to cultural societies.

Travel agents have a host of brochures that contain glorious photos to give you the feel of your setting.  They can tell you how people get to 'Burma' and how the inhabitants get around in 'Burma'.

And of course, you can't overlook the library for reference material.

Cookbooks can be invaluable sources of information, especially if your characters eat.  Taste is one of our most evocative senses--add some food to your setting.

Look for foreign magazines to illustrate a nation's tastes and interests, consult newspapers to determine national concerns.

For terrain and climate, study geography books, or illustrated atlases.  Don't forget wildlife, and vegetation.  The scents of dust, ocean, flowers, and animals can be powerful details.

A few foreign words can be very atmospheric, check out dictionaries, or language classes.  You don't have to take a whole class, just talk to the teacher.

If you choose to write historical fiction, you can plan on doubling your research--history as well as setting.  If you write alternative fiction, you halve your research, but double the use of your imagination!

Once you have done your research, know everything there is to know about your setting, and are comfortable there, there is one more thing to remember.  Don't overdo it.  Always know more than you reveal.  Nyberg suggests, "be mercilessly practical in choosing your details--they must be useful."  If you do your homework, your reader will believe you have been where your characters have been, and have seen what they see.

Nyberg, Ben.  One Way to Write Great Short Stories.
Writer's Digest Books, 1988.

© Lesley-Anne McLeod 2007
Permission granted for personal use only. Email request for other permission.