Shopping for settings and scenesby Terry McLaughlin
Here's a relatively quick and easy way to research a contemporary setting: go shopping.
When I began work on the three books in my Bright Lights, Big Sky series, I needed lots of information about life in Montana, a place I've never visited. And I needed specific details about my fictional cattle ranch in the southwestern part of the state.
I decided to shop for my ranch on the Internet, and I found one for sale that seemed ideal for my story. It was as large as I'd envisioned, contained timberland in addition to pastures, and had plenty of water, including a river for fly fishing.
I wrote a letter to the realty listing the ranch, introducing myself and explaining that I was researching the setting for a novel. I asked if someone at the office would be so kind as to send me the sales presentation for that ranch, along with any maps, brochures, and publications introducing the area's chamber of commerce, tourist destinations, community events, and schools--everything someone who was planning to spend time in the area might find useful and interesting.
My next step was a trip to the post office. I purchased a large Tyvek-style envelope, self-addressed it, and asked the clerk to add enough postage to pay for a twenty-pound package (the weight of a ream of paper). I figured that would be enough to cover the return costs of whatever goodies I might be receiving. I stuffed that envelope and my letter inside another envelope addressed to the realty and sent it on its way.
One week later, I received a package filled with terrific items that not only would help me describe my settings but would also help me build my story. Inside my envelope were maps containing the layouts of nearby towns and the highways that connect them, pamphlets from the local chambers of commerce, information about historic points of interest, tourism brochures, hunting season schedules, and state vacation guides.
The brochures and pamphlets were filled with advertising for local businesses and restaurants and calendars of community events. In the ads and photo captions, I found names--wonderful, colorful names of real people to serve as inspiration for my characters' names. And on nearly every page were pictures of the people and their buildings, the livestock and the wild animals, the trees and flowers, the rivers and mountains of Montana.
I discovered community events for my characters to attend and restaurant menus for them to enjoy. I learned how they'd travel across their fields, what fish they'd catch in their streams, what birds they'd see in the sky and what activities their children would participate in at school. More than one scene or story idea had its genesis within the pages of those pamphlets.
The property sales folder was a wonder. It provided the images and details I needed; it also gave me a vocabulary I could use to make life on my fictional ranch seem very real.
While I didn't find every detail I needed for my three-book series in my real estate shopping package, the materials I received also gave me specific terms to use in subsequent Internet research. I'll definitely go shopping like this the next time I need a place for my characters to live.