If you’ve been following my blog for a while, or read any of my books, you’ll know how important setting is to me in my writing. In this post about Richmond Park, for example, I wrote about how I tried to combine the setting for The Antique Love with the theme of the book, and how I used the setting to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of my characters.
So far I’ve been able to visit most of the locations I’ve used in my books. My settings range from Edinburgh to the south coast of France, and they are all within easy reach for me. But sometimes it’s just not possible to get to the place you want to write about. I used to agonise about this. I like to “see” exactly what it is my characters see.
But I’ve gradually stepped out of my comfort zone and written about places I haven’t been to myself. I wrote about a parachute jump in A Way from Heart to Heart, for example. I’m terrified of heights, and there is absolutely no way you’d get me to jump out of a plane, but I wrote a realistic (I hope) scene in which the hero is with his instructor, steps out of a plane door, how he feels as he does so, and how he lands. (He’s in a state of terror pretty much the whole time – he shares my fear of heights, and I could easily write his feelings!)
In 2007 Stef Penney won the Costa Prize for The Tenderness of Wolves. She did all her research in the British Library, and yet the book is set in a bleak landscape in northern Canada, and this landscape is an integral part of the story. The author is agoraphobic and couldn’t get on a plane, and yet she wrote vivid, prize-winning descriptions. If you are able to research and you have a vivid imagination (both attributes of a writer) it’s possible to bring an unknown location alive for readers.
My next novel (coming out in July 2017) is called Felicity at the Cross Hotel. The setting is the Lake District, at a fictional lake called Emmswater, which is based on Ullswater. Ullswater is about three hours’ drive from me. I’ve been several times, but there were still occasions when I need to refresh my memory or check certain details. Here are some places I use for research:
1. Instagram A search on the hashtag #ullswater throws up literally thousands of photos.
2. Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest are also great places to find photos. Flickr and Tumblr host travel blogs, as well as images. A search on the Lake District on Tumblr brought up this website of stunning photos. (I have my own profile on Pinterest, where I pin photos and articles on writing. Here’s my board for my book The Silk Romance, which has lots of photos of the setting in Lyon’s beautiful Croix-Rousse district.)
3. Buy maps and travel guides for the area you’re researching.
[Related: Want to know where your book is falling short? Get a free book coaching sample.]
4. If there is a tourist information office in the location you’re writing about, get in touch with them. I’ve found the staff in these official offices are always very helpful. After all, their aim is to attract visitors to their area, and they are always interested and delighted to know that someone is writing a book set in their location.
5. YouTube was invaluable to me when researching my hero’s parachute jump. Everyone videos themselves nowadays, and YouTube is a fantastic source of real life footage – from a bungee jump in New Zealand, or a trip round Niagara Falls, or a wildlife hunt in East Africa.
6. Put a call out on social media and see if you can find someone who has been to that area. Most people are more than happy to share their experiences.
7. One of my favourite resources is Google Earth. Using this application you can travel all around the world from the comfort of your own armchair, zoom in and out, look at other people’s photos, and immerse yourself in the location.
8. I find Google maps Street View is even better than Google Earth. If you want to take your characters on a journey, you can put yourself at street level on the exact same roads they’d have to travel down. In Felicity at the Cross Hotel, my hero and heroine take a trip to the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Whitehaven. I used Google maps to go on that journey with them, and I was able to visualise exactly their walk along this harbour wall. It’s an amazing resource!
9. Read lots of other novels set in the same location. The website Trip Fiction is a great place to find books set all over the world. Just type in the location you’re after, and a whole list of suggested reading will come up.
When I’m reading a book set in a place I’ve been to, I love to recognise the landmarks as the story progresses, and to know I’ve stood on the same streets. I try to make my own settings as accurate as possible, so readers can do the same. Plus, the research is fun and I learn a lot from it!
This guest post was contributed by Helena Fairfax. Helena writes engaging contemporary romances with sympathetic heroines and heroes she’s secretly in love with. Her novels have been shortlisted for several awards, including the Exeter Novel Prize, the Global Ebook Awards, and the I Heart Indie Awards. Her first novel was written through the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.