Writing Tip — Digging into Research

IMG_8547I 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.

IMG_85262. 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.

Writing Tip

download-1013983_1280Be an Expert on Your Own Back Yard

Another area where you can be your own expert is where you live.  It can be impossible to travel to far-flung locations to do research on a setting for story.  You might as well take the cheap route, research your own community, and see if that research spark any ideas.

If you like history, research that aspect of your community.  Local libraries are great place to do local research.  They often have a local history room with sources you can not find anywhere else.  Many communities have their own historical societies.  Check out their resources.  Both libraries and historical societies may offer free programs on local history.  I have learned a lot about my town from attending programs at my library.  Reading through old local newspapers, which a library should have, can also stir interest.

But if history doesn’t spark any ideas, get to know your community as it is now.  Just driving around with your powers of observation turned to full strength will help you discover unique aspects.  Where I live, out in the country, there are a lot of quarries, some abandoned.  I got to visit an abandoned one.  Because of the digging, the landscape in the quarry is very different from the surrounding one.  It’s very stark, even bleak.  It would be a good setting in a mystery or a thriller.  Or, if you are writing about a character who is an outsider in his or her community, the quarry can serve as a symbol of the character’s differences.

My county has a split personality.  It used to be rural with a college town as the county seat.  The county seat still has the college, but the southern part is developing into enormous suburbs.  The north is still rural with farms and tiny towns.  A lot of compelling storytelling can come from creating tension between the two disparate communties.

Even if you live in a big city, like New York or Los Angeles of Chicago, which are often the settings for stories, you can find smaller qualities about it that aren’t well-known.  And since you are unique, you can take even well-known parts of city and write about it with your own personal touch.

For another use of historical research, read this article by my friend Sandra Merville Hart.



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