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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, May 05, 2008

Shopping for settings and scenes

by 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.


At 4:11 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Terry, that's a brilliant idea! I never would have thought of that, but it makes so much sense. And a bunch of those sites now have virtual tours of the homes as well, so you could get a real feel for the places.

I actually blogged about writing descriptions of places you've never been yesterday, and one thing I mentioned trying was comparing travel logs or reading articles from people native to the area with thoughts from people who are visiting the area for the first time. A person who has lived somewhere forever will know about and value very different things from the person who's seeing a place for the first time and can convey a real "Wow", first impression of a place.

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Great idea. So far, I've set scenes in places I've already visited, even briefly -- my upcoming release is set in Montana, and I based it on a trip I took with my husband; he was in meetings and I explored.

I've also found it's easier to use fictional settings based on real ones. My first book was set in a small town in Oregon, and I kept bugging my sister-in-law, who lived in Salem for those details that add authenticity. I took pity on her and moved one of the characters to my own home town for the next book. It was actually harder to write because it was 'real' and I had to get the details right, especially about the way the Sheriff's Office operated and all the requisite details.

At 7:08 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Great idea, Terry! I'm definitely going to try it.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Linda in Burlingame said...

Terry - You are an ace on research! What a great idea and how generous of the realty office. I have to admit, even though I can barely afford a latte, let alone real estate, I do troll the internet for houses with land. I pick a spot in the world I might want to live and then go shopping.

My series takes place in Napa Valley - which I live near enough to for a visit (or more than one visit!) - but you've given me a wonderful idea about how to gather some original research materials before I visit.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

What a great approach, Terry! Now that I think of it that way, I do a lot of "online shopping" for my historicals. There's hardly a single interesting place in England that doesn't have as website these days, and real estate descriptions are available too. I haven't tried asking for "stuff", but I have received a lot of information by asking for it.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

gillian--thanks for the comment :-). Yes, I've spent many happy hours on virtual home tour sites. One of my current projects is set in present-day England, and in addition to views of houses, grounds, and rooms I can describe later, I pick up some British vocabulary.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, terry :-)! Like you, I prefer to create fictional setting based on bits of real ones.

My new Superromance series is located in a fictional town on California's north coast, where I live. My daughter-in-law is reading the first book now, and she finds it distracting the way I'll describe a building she's familiar with but give it a different name and setting. I just hope no one I know will recognize himself or herself, LOL!

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Thanks, Mo and Delle :-). Yes, the shopping is SO much fun ;-0!

Linda, skip the research and head for Napa. You can pick up tons of great research material (not to mention valuable immersion experiences) in the tasting rooms ;-). The visitor's information center in downtown Napa has more pamphlets, brochures, and publications than I've ever seen assembled in one place (and there are some cute shops along the nearby streets).

At 12:54 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

How inventive!

I've struggled with real places and wanting to be authentic vs. fictional settings. The truth is they both require research, unless the fictional setting is an island in the middle of a big body of water. And even then research is required to understand the climate for the time of year.

So I may need to borrow this idea...

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Amy Addison said...

What an excellent idea for researching! Thank you!

At 2:23 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Wow, Terry. What a wonderful shopping spree that turned out to be! Great idea. Thanks for the great tip. I will definitely have to send a letter to a realtor for more info! I make real places fictional too, just to cover my butt in case I get something wrong.


At 2:39 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Pat, you're so right--even a fictional place has to fit into its real surroundings to be believable for readers ;-).

Good luck with your research :-)!

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

You're welcome, Amy :-). Happy researching!

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Theresa--I have the same motivation for creating fictional places ;-). The few times I've mentioned real cities, I've used spots so generic (a shopping mall parking lot, a bar) they could be anywhere.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Great idea, Terry--did you get copies of the local newspaper in your package o goodies? They're really interesting, particularly for small towns where they'll write about just anything!

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Oh, if we give a prize for "best research idea" this has to be a strong contender! Brilliant, Terry!

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

That's awesome, Terry! I've traveled to two places where I set books. Haven't sold either of those stories, but it was a really fun way to vacation. I'm met with the mayor of Eden, NC, got a behind-the-scenes tour of an abandoned fabric mill, and asked a total stranger whether most Scotsmen are circumcised (answer: yes). And in both places, I picked up maps, gobs of local papers, and a phone book.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Janet--no, I didn't ask for any newspapers. I asked only for things I thought the realty might already have in its office. Local papers are a great idea, though :-)!

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Thanks, Diane :-)!

Esri--sounds like you made good use of your vacation time ;-)!

I spent some fun times in the Napa area researching the article I wrote for the Wet Noodle Posse site. My husband enjoyed joining me on some of the special tours the winery personnel gave us.

Phone books are so valuable! I'm constantly looking through mine to get some memorable names. The yellow page ads are handy, too.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Pat Cochran said...

Hi, Terry,

The folks of the realty company you dealt with seem as if they would rate
highly as excellent neighbors. They
would count as one of the checkmarks
on the ratings list of their area!! They would make good Texans! LOL!

Pat Cochran

At 10:46 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Esri, the lengths to which you got to authenticate your research! Okay, that sentence was wrong in so many ways, but you understand what I meant!

This really is a great idea. I have seen some realtor's sites based in England that specialize in selling stately homes. While I have used to sites to do virtual tours I never thought about asking for actual brochures. I will now!

I did send for some tourist brochures on the counties in England where I set Lost in Love AND The Raven's Heart (aka The Hedgehog) which is my current WIP/next novel. They sent some gorgeous material and it served to jog my memory of the places we lived in and visited when I was a child.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, doglady :-)! Oooh, stately homes--some of my favorite sites to visit! In fact, I think I'd rather visit the real thing than study a brochure ;-).

At 1:56 AM, Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Excellent idea Terry! In a way, writing historicals is easier than contemporaries because of the many, many historical societies in existence, but on the other hand, it's easier to get the tiny details right for stories set in the present--you can just ring someone up or email them.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, la belle :-)! Yes, those tiny details are tough to uncover. They're the ones that stop me dead in my tracks whenever I think about writing an historical. Studies for my history degree didn't include the minutiae of everyday life.


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