Saturday, October 22, 2011

Setting Research: Working and Playing

Writing about a particular location typically requires you spend quality time in the region. You can research online and read magazines and books, but, in my opinion, nothing beats feet-on-the-ground experiences.

I’m currently working on a three-book series revolving around a California ranching family. Our son, who lives in New York City, decided to stay with us for twelve days, and because he’s a globetrotter I knew he’d prefer to not hop on another airplane once he arrived at the house. So I simply looked down the highway toward a local California guest ranch. What better way to keep focused on my characters, build a deeper appreciation of the setting I had in my mind, and have a fun time with my husband and son.

We’re fortunate to have this guest ranch only forty miles from our home. And cell phones don’t work there. How cool is that! They do offer Wi-Fi in the main lodge for those who bring their laptops, as our son did. His work required him to spend a few hours online.

I booked a trail ride for one afternoon. Would you believe our wrangler was a Dane and a musician? My son is a sound engineer who loves Copenhagen, so they hit it off immediately. Life is full of surprises. And opportunities. Has anyone read a story about a Danish wrangler? Now that’s an unusual angle.


I shot photographs of the lodge buildings. This particular spot has a long history going back to 1939 when it switched from a camp to a guest ranch. The same family lives here, now going on the third generation. Your typical American mobility doesn’t apply to these people.


Chair and rocker outside our door.


Wooden carved western-style chandelier and below worn cowboy boots.


And a well-stocked bar.


My current WIP is set in a guest ranch in this general vicinity so I was in hog heaven, asking questions galore of the eighty-one-year-old family patriarch. We were the ONLY mid-week guests so we had the owner’s undivided attention during our meals with him. And I didn’t disturb any guests while shooting my camera. My husband bested me on the billiard table, which was a surprise. As a teenager I spent hours playing pool at home.

We three enjoyed each other’s company, lazed away the hours together in and out of the spa, ending our visit with thoughts of returning for a longer visit. I had plenty of photographic material to enrich the details of my current story’s setting AND fond family memories.

I’m curious how other writers decide on story location. What has been your biggest challenge to recreate a setting in a story?

16 comments:

Ana Morgan said...

My WIP's setting is Boston. I've been asking friends who live, or have lived, there to tweak my descriptions.
Just as important as setting details, IMO, are action details. Unrealistic details about life in a setting I know really throw me out of a story.

Terry Spear/Terry Lee Wilde said...

Love it Sheila! I research blogs that tell about people's experiences in the actual location where I set the story. I haven't been to the Amazon, but I've set my first jaguar shifter story there. From actual accounts by a coworker's sister and numerous blog accounts, I've set the scene.

Sheila Tenold said...

Friends can be a great resource. Ana, you're so right about life in a setting, especially period stories.
We visited Boston a few years ago and tramped through a very old cemetery there. I plan to write a historical that includes Boston. That cemetery fits nicely in the story.

Sheila Tenold said...

Terry, tapping that coworker's sister was a lucky break, wasn't it?
Blogs are a great resource. It's exciting to access other people's experiences--right at our fingertips!
I have a character who lived in Buenos Aires for four years and I had to research like crazy online.
So far I haven't run across a person who lived there.

Vonnie Davis said...

Great blog, Sheila. When I wrote "Storm's Interlude," I did gobs of online research for I'd never been to Texas or a ranch or on a horse. One of my best resources was real estate listings in that area. Not only could I dtudy types of buildings, but see some great photos of landscapes and sunsets. A reviewer remarked that she loved my description of the hill country and its sunsets, so I knew I'd learend from research. Even so, I was leary writing about someplace and a lifestyle I've never lived.

My current WIP is the second in a series set in Paris. I've been there so I can draw on our experiences and study the hundreds of photos I took. I feel more comfortable because I know the smells and sounds and attitudes of the city.

Sheila Tenold said...

Hi, Vonnie! You did a terrific job with setting in Storm's Interlude. I felt like I was there. I have spent time in Texas hill country.

In your Paris research you identified sounds, smells and attitudes, which are just as important as static environment to a writer. It's the little brushstrokes that create the big picture! Thanks for stopping by.

Sheila Seabrook said...

I generally stick to locales I'm familiar with or can travel to easily (I'm fairly close to the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding ranching area) but every once in a while, a story comes along that demands a different location. In those cases, I'll do a little online research but most of my research is done after I've written the first or second draft.

And it also helps tremendously when a critique partner surprises you with their knowledge of boats and sailing. Yes, that would be you, Sheila. :)

Sheila Tenold said...

Hello Sheila, I'm glad you could stop by. And I'm glad I was a help re: boating : )

I usually stick to local settings too. However, I want to write a story about Lopez Island, Washington, a long way from California. Friends and writing colleagues can be good setting resources. Fortunately, I've visited Lopez before and can stay with a dear friend there.

I wish I was close to the Rockies. We're stuck in fog here.

Jill James said...

When I was working on Tempting Adam it was really hard to get the feel of Southern California. I live in Northern California and SoCal is like another country. Los Angeles is different than Southern California. And Hollywood is a world all its own. But I had visited enough that I felt I could have a taste of the flavor of down south.

Sheila Tenold said...

Oh, how right you are, Jill. I know LA well, and Hollywood. Southern California encompasses a variety of remote small towns. Unfortunately, much of southern coastal Califonia is becoming greater LA as the sprawl continues. The only upside of the 2008 housing crash was a drop in new urban development.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Sheila, this is such a cool place and to think you live so close to it. Being half Danish, I loved hearing about your wrangler. :)

I live where I write about and love that all of the history is around me. In fact, I just had to start physical therapy and the office is in the Smith Flat House which is built over a gold mine tunnel I used in my fourth story. It is a very small world.

Gabriella Hewitt said...

Great post. I think it's terrific how you combined work with pleasure. I tend to write about settings I know but not always. In a novella it's easier to go spare on certain place details. I think it's harder in a novel. In cases where I really have no experience and can't get it, I also ask people I trust to go through and check those parts of the story for accuracy.

But, planning a vacation around your story's locations sounds like a wonderful idea.( :

Vicki Batman said...

Hi, Sheila, this looks like a fascinating place to visit and share a wonderful time with your son. Just awesome.

Setting--for now, most of my stories are set in a fictional town based on a place I know and love. And when I travel, I end up incorporating special places in my town.

Good post! oxox

Dawn Marie Hamilton said...

Sounds like a fun time, Sheila. Great pictures.

Josie said...

Sheila,
What a beautiful setting to reconnect with your family and your novel. Can you invite your FTH friends to join you next time? :)

Sheila Tenold said...

Josie,
Yes! Let's do that.