Digging in

PhotobucketToday I’ll be talking about the research I did to bring Kilmer to life in HELL FIRE. Kilmer is the archetypal spooky small Southern town, hiding dark secrets and terrifying magic. Here are some descriptive bits to give you some idea how I went about it:

We passed the wood that encircled the town. Sometimes, as a kid, it had seemed to me that someone simply burned a patch out of the forbidding forest, and there, Kilmer had been built. Over long years, the trees grew back in around it, overhanging the rutted road.

With the windows open, I smelled dank vegetation heavy in the air, and pallid sunlight filtering through the canopy overhead threw a sickly green glow over the car as Chance drove.

My intestines coiled into knots over the idea of losing the light out here within a stone’s throw of those dark trees. The whorls on the bark looked like nothing so much as demonic sigils in the wicked half-light, and the long, skeletal limbs stirred in the breeze in a way I simply couldn’t like.

I shook my head absently, taking in the familiar sights. It was bizarre. The road into town hadn’t changed at all. Ma’s Kitchen, an old white clapboard restaurant, still sat just outside the city limits. The shopping plaza on the left had been given a facelift, fresh paint and new lines in the tiny parking lot, but the general store, the dry cleaners, the Kilmer bank, and a coffee shop still occupied it. The names on the dry cleaner’s and coffee shop had changed, but otherwise, the town seemed just as I’d left it.

If we stayed on this street, we’d wind up in the town square, where the old courthouse reigned like an aging duchess who refused to admit her day had passed. The clock on the tower hadn’t worked since before I moved away, and I couldn’t imagine, given the faded air, that they’d come into the money to fix it since. The ‘historical’ district simply contained the oldest houses; most hadn’t been restored.

But Kilmer retained a certain turn of the century charm, if you didn’t know what lurked beneath its exterior. I recognized Federal inspired houses with their rectangular structure and slim, delicate iron railings; those stately old dames mingled freely with Georgian homes with hipped roofs and quoins on the corners.

You see how I use description to build a mood? Fortunately, I do have some personal experience in the south. I’ve spent a number of school vacations there, gone to funerals and visited relatives. See, while I was not born there myself, my people come from there. So I grew up listening to the rhythms and absorbing the customs as an observer. But that wasn’t quite enough to set a book there in present day. I did a lot of internet research. Read a lot of articles. I looked a lots of pictures and slideshows. I also studied maps of the terrain and learned about the natural habitats.

To enrich the facts I’d gathered, I also asked a lot of questions of friends and acquaintances who live in the South, so I could be sure what I remembered still applied. Naturally, given the paranormal trappings, I could take certain liberties. I did also attend one convention wherein I drove through Georgia and Alabama. On that trip, I took careful notes on what I saw and snapped some of my own pictures to aid in creating my own town later.

What tricks and techniques do you use to create your settings?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Dave Young / dcysurfer


About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray, she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. Sharon Bially says

    Nice post, Ann. Connected in ways to Jan’s debut post about metaphors. Seeing the metaphor between our surroundings and events isn’t quite enough: to complete the loop, we have to see the connection to a particular mood. Or, in reverse, starting with the mood, we need to find it’s metaphor in setting.

  2. says

    I read a story on Helium.com that not only had a powerful setting, but a meaningful setting. The author successfully used setting as a medium to express character emotion.

    Although I didn’t particularly like the story, it did have a few very promising strengths. To read it: http://www.helium.com/items/1778137-short-stories-fading-memories

    My goal, in every story I write, is to paint a wonderful picture that is both pleasing and purposeful. Especially in short stories, where everything is necessarily connected and interrelated, it’s important to link the setting back to the original theme. I think I remember Willa Cather being particularly talented in this area.
    .-= Dominique´s last blog ..Ready for Press? =-.

  3. says

    Whenever possible, I like to visit the place where my story occurs – whether it is a town or coffee shop or museum – and sit, observe, take notes, and take tons of pictures.

    Perhaps my favorite “research” day was the afternoon I spent strolling the houseboat docks in Sausalito filming all the boats and people and decorations.

    Maybe that is why I put the Hamptons in my current manuscript…so I would have an excuse to visit!
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..Connecting the old life with the new =-.

  4. says

    I was travelling through Montana and in a bar. I just walked up to some cowboys, told them my name and sat down. I told them I was a writer and needed to learn a little something about cowboys. They looked at me like they might beat the snot out of me. Then the biggest one said, “Greg, if you’re not a cowboy, we don’t like you. But what the hell, buy us a round and tell us what you want to know.” Three hours later I stumbled out like the town drunk, brimming with cowboy insight.

    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing

  5. says

    Ann, I really enjoyed that excerpt. mood and setting are clinchers for me as a reader. I also try to capture them in my writing. My current project takes place mainly in the Appalachian woods–something I’m familiar with–but it also involves a subject I need to not only respect, but get exactly right. American Indian mythology and culture. sheesh. big project, but enjoyable.

    @Greg…that could be the best blog comment ever. A complete little story on its own. Might have to buy your book now. ;)
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Roger, Roger =-.

  6. says

    It’s so great to get a “behind the scenes” look at what you were thinking. Great insight for a struggling amateur writer.

    I’ve been fortunate to have lived in and visited a lot of interesting places including Buenos Aires and Lebanon, but trying to capture the mood and feel of a place in words is challenging. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that creates each place’s unique feel.

    I also have a hard time imagining what my audience knows and what images my words will create in their minds. Everyone’s background is different and maybe saying, “the festively painted La Boca apartment” brings up a different image in your mind than it does in mine.

    I guess that’s where having friends read over your manuscript really helps out.
    .-= Siddhartha´s last blog ..Do You Have a Phone? I Need to Take a Picture =-.

  7. says

    I think about what’s interesting and what’s relevant and find a way to put them together.

    Setting is all argument. It’s the way a character sees something (even when it’s a third person narrator). It can be a window into the world-view of the character, so readers connect with them.

    I only care about the way the clouds look if the character cares.

    What’s really interesting about setting? A detail that only you know, or only your character notices. That’s the only trick I’ve got.

  8. says

    I really enjoyed your piece. The connection between the place and the mood is very important; I always think the way a character sees a certain place is a great and an affective way to reveal some information about him, perhaps he/she can remember something from the past or the place can provoke a certain emotion that would tell us something about the character.
    If I get the chance, I visit the places I want to write about, and try to focus on the details that my characters would pick up according to their moods.

  9. says

    I too scour the internet, read articles, draw from pictures, and buy and mark up maps. I also buy books of poetry from an area to pick up on interesting themes and dialect. I haunt message boards, too. And I also visit those places when I can, to get a first-hand feel for everything.

    Thanks for a great post, Ann. Your book sounds fabulous!