I recently returned from a trip to Tucker County, West Virginia. My novel is set in a fictional county of West Virginia, but shares many characteristics with Tucker and neighboring Grant County.
Because my novel is set in current times, I have a much easier time doing my research than if I was using a historical context.
Here are three rules to follow if you are fortunate enough to be able to live in the setting your characters occupy:
1. Walk the walk. Or drive the drive. However you need to move around to familiarize yourself with a location, do it. We hiked through the mountains. I drove through three local towns and the twisty, heart-stopping roads between them. Such on-the-spot research reveals aspects I couldn’t learn from just reading books. For example, I went on a night walk because this is something my characters do. Apart from just feeling what the night is like in the mountains, I learned when it’s too dark to see my feet, I get a feeling of vertigo, like every step drops into a bottomless pit.
2. Talk to the locals. Nothing beats learning from the people who live in a location. We stayed at Blackwater Falls State Park. While one of my kids made a craft at a program in the nature center, I talked to the assistant naturalist and found out all kind of interesting facts about the area. Such as how the beautiful eastern hemlocks are under attack from an invasive insect.
3. Visit a local library if there is one. Since I am a former librarian, it’s not surprising I like to do my research in libraries. Often, libraries have resources on the local area you can’t find online. I went to the library in Parsons, the county seat of Tucker County, and read through some old newspapers on microfilm (haven’t used that in a while), researching an idea I have for a mystery novel. It was difficult to print off the microfilm machine, so I asked if any of these old newspapers were online. The librarian told me they weren’t, so visiting the local library was my only option.
If your story isn’t set where you live, and it isn’t on the third planet from Altair, do your best to visit your setting. What you learn will surprise you.