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Book That Plane Ticket: How Experiencing Your Setting First-Hand Can Enhance Your Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Scott Smithson
Flickr Creative Commons: Scott Smithson

I first saw Ontario’s Georgian Bay on September 28th, 2004, at 12:36 PM. I know this because my camcorder recorded my exclamation of “Oh, my God, look at that!” followed by gushing remarks about the water’s tropical hues, the gnarled windblown trees, and the islands scattered in the distance. I sounded like a teenage fan-girl whose crush/idol/future husband had just reached down from the stage to clasp her hand. While my brain floated in a sea of dopamine, my camera captured footage of my left shoe, a Tim Horton’s coffee cup, and the half-empty bag of Doritos on the car floor.

No, my family has not let me live this down.

Later that same day, while walking the beach at Leith, a Georgian Bay village featured in several chapters of my (now) work-in-progress, the breeze off Owen Sound ripped an awed gasp from my throat. No wonder the artist in my story had found inspiration there; reflections of him were everywhere. A gangly jack pine grew from a crack in a boulder, its trunk and branches bowed from brutal prevailing winds. Like the tree, my painter thrust his roots in forbidding soil, his body twisted but not broken by the gales of illness, pain and his peers’ malice. His changeable spirit resided in the water. One moment he might be manganese blue, tinted almost to transparency and mixed with a hint of yellow ochre at the shore. Dabs of indigo and rust shadowed distant banks; heaven only knew what shipwrecks lurked there. When his work went well, I imagined his soul was like the Sound’s channel, where viridian and Prussian blue waves danced, collided and merged into a turquoise vibrant enough to make my eyes ache. I swore they moved in time to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

What started as a genealogical research trip led not only to the discovery of my soul’s home, but also to my first glimpse of the world through my character’s eyes. Such insight could never have been achieved by looking at photographs.

Setting is an often neglected but crucial element in creating stories that resonate. Many authors write about familiar places; towns they grew up in, cities they currently live in. Doing this empowers them to paint an authentic picture with minimal effort.

Story does not always cooperate, though. If a novel is based on a real person, the writer is constrained by the time and place in which that person lived. A main character may refuse to speak with anything but a British accent. The climax of the story might fall flat if set anywhere but in Siena’s Plaza del Campo.

In that case, book a plane ticket or plan a road trip if at all possible. Here’s why:

Sensory details

It would be difficult to convincingly transport a reader to Bangkok, for example, if the writer has never experienced the sensory overload of walking along that city’s streets. The menagerie of spoken languages, the blaring horns and neon lights, the heat that makes sweat seep from every pore. Most overwhelming are the smells. One moment jasmine perfumes the air. Two steps later it might be a mouthwatering pork satay. It could also be any combination of raw sewage, curry, incense, coconut rice or rotting cabbage.

Kim beside "her bay" in 2009
Kim beside “her bay” in 2009

Here’s an example of how I used a sensory detail from the setting to illustrate a character’s mettle in my own manuscript. Years ago, I read an account of how my protagonist’s husband walked out into Georgian Bay and dunked himself without hesitation or complaint. I thought little of it until I tried to recreate that scene last July. Having grown up in Maine, I thought myself impervious to cold. Let me tell you, that water felt like walking into a raging fire. Scarlet F-bombs exploded in my head. After fifteen minutes of undignified squeaks and squeals, I went under. Why does this matter? If my protagonist shares my experience while watching her semi-crippled husband dunk himself without a peep, the reader understands he is One Seriously Tough Dude. They will take his later suffering seriously and (hopefully) overlook his occasional bouts of asshat behavior.

Landscape and culture

When you think of Dallas, Texas, what do you imagine? Skyscrapers surrounded by ranches like South Fork? Flat desolation? Desert foliage? Dry heat? Men in cowboy boots? Women with big hair? A population that greets strangers with a “Howdy, y’all!”

If an author portrayed Big D this way, about eight million potential readers would revolt. Dallas boasts far more trees than strip malls, and its residents have the year-round allergies to prove it. Summer days often have humidity levels in the 90 percent range, making big hair fall flat. Boots aren’t required footwear for anyone. In the two decades I’ve lived here, I’ve never heard anyone say “howdy” except as a joke. Few people even sound Texan; many of us aren’t.

What if I can’t afford that ticket to Paris…

Diana Gabaldon captured 18th century Scotland brilliantly when she wrote Outlander, though she had never been to Scotland, much less time-traveled. Though not ideal, it can be done with some research and ingenuity. Here are some tips:

Have you traveled to someplace new in order to enhance the details of an unfamiliar setting? What did you learn? If you have relied on research alone, do you have any further tips?

About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.