Saturday, September 13, 2014

Research Can Be Fun

Bredon Tithe Barn from the 1300s, part of the setting for THE SEDGWICK CURSE mystery romantic/suspense
There's no denying that research is a part of writing whether non-fiction or fiction.  And within the parameters of fiction, the genre somewhat dictates how much research is required.  Certainly, historical fiction requires extensive research into place and time in order to be accurate with details down to the simplest clothing items.  Techno thrillers, legal thrillers, and medical themed novels need to be accurate in terminology, science, and procedures.

But there is an area of research that is often considered trivial or inconsequential in the overall scope of your story—the location where your story is set. Certainly the setting is important, but as a matter of research seldom makes it to the top of the list.

A contemporary novel set in your home town requires little in the way of research for location.  You live there so you know about the terrain, weather, the businesses, the good neighborhoods vs. the bad neighborhoods, streets and highways, tourist attractions, places of special interest and historical interest.  That's easy.

But, what about setting your story somewhere that you have never been?  If that is the case, you have options available.  The most obvious for accuracy is to visit the location—take in the ambiance, make note of the geographic elements, study the activities of the residents, and grab the tourist brochures usually available in the hotel lobby.  All major metropolitan areas have certain must see tourist attractions that are common knowledge around the world.  The Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower.  Well known tourist attractions can certainly be included in descriptive passages of your setting or become part of a scene where some action takes place.  That gives the reader an immediate mental image reference to go along with your descriptive passages.

Travel and tour books can be a great help for general research information.  In the U.S., the Auto Club (AAA) publishes tour books for all the states that includes information about the major cities in that state and certainly the tourist areas in addition to hotel/motel and restaurant listings.  A real estate search of a city will give you knowledge of the various neighborhoods.  A city's website will tell you about the educational system, shopping, cultural events, sports activities, tourist attractions, etc.

My most interesting research experience was for one of my Harlequin Intrigue novels, THE SEDGWICK CURSE, a mystery romantic suspense reissued by Harlequin in ebook.

My story was set in a stereotypical English country village of the type found in the Cotswolds.  A large estate inhabited by the Lord of the manor—land and a title that had been in the family for centuries.  An annual festival that had been held on the estate grounds every year for over two hundred years.  And murder involving the titled rich and powerful from a century ago and a family curse that's brought to fruition now.

I needed to research several things.  Certainly accurate information about the physical setting I'd chosen.  And then specifics (beyond what I'd gleaned from various British crime drama series on PBS' Mystery) about the way local law enforcement interacted with the privileged titled aristocracy when investigating a murder.

I had already been to England several times and had another trip planned, so I included spending one week in the Cotswolds to do the research I needed.  **This is where the fun part of the research came in.  :) **  I found a charming centuries old hotel in the town of Tewkesbury and used it as my base to explore the surrounding area.

My research started when I walked into the local police station, said I was a writer doing research for a novel, and asked if there was someone I could talk to about how a local murder would be investigated.  I was passed on to a Detective Sergeant who was very helpful and spent about two hours with me, which was an hour and forty-five minutes longer than expected.  I garnered far more information than I needed for that specific book, but great research material for future needs.

The next step in my research was the immediate location for my fictional Lord Sedgwick's estate.  This was a major stroke of good luck.  About three miles north of Tewkesbury is the village of Bredon that had everything I needed, including a large estate that hosted a village festival every year and the weekend I was there happened to be festival weekend.  I was able to wander around the grounds, take pictures, and get information about the estate straight from the owner's mouth.  One of the buildings on the grounds, the Tithe Barn pictured here, is part of the National Trust and dates back to the 1300s.  It is accurately described and used in my book, as are many of the features of the real counterpart of my Sedgwick Estate.

Obviously, traveling to a foreign country to research a location isn't that practical.  If the location is a well-known tourist attraction, you will have lots of research material available to you.  But what if your desired setting is a typical small town or village in a specific area?  That brings us to the more practical solution of creating a fictional small town as the setting for your story.

I have set many of my Harlequin and Silhouette books in fictional small towns.  But the one thing these fictional small towns have in common is that they are all patterned after a real place that I've been in the state where I've set the story.  And in lieu of that, there's always the ability of taking something like a beach town or mountain village you've been to and transplanting it to another state for the purposes of your story.

If there's someplace you've been, a vacation you enjoyed, and you want to recreate the feel and ambiance for your story setting without fear of getting some of the facts wrong about the real place, the best way to handle it is to create a fictional location.  Do some basic research on the general type of location you've selected for your story such as a fishing village on the coast of Maine.  That will give you basic generic facts for that type of setting.  Then you can take the feel of the real life place you visited and impose those memories and impressions on top of your researched facts for a fully realized story setting.  Your characters can then impart that sense of place to the readers with the words and actions you give them in addition to your descriptions.

Do any of you have any research tips for story setting that you'd like to share?

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