How to Create an Authentic Setting from a Place You’ve Never Been

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From Writer Unboxed:

What do a cup of Wawa coffee, a bottle of Yuengling lager, and a bag of Herr’s potato chips have in common? They are a few of the many of subtle details that bring the fictional Philadelphia suburb of Easttown to life in HBO’s new crime drama miniseries, Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet.

Having grown up in a nearby town, spotting these little details was like seeing a childhood friend on TV—“Hey, I know that coffee cup!” From Mare’s North Penn High School T-shirt to the blue, white, and yellow license plate on her SUV to her character’s Delaware County pronunciation of “water” (wooder), these little details came together to create an authentic sense of place.

The series creator Brad Ingelsby is a native of nearby Berwyn, Pennsylvania, so it’s no wonder he got these details right. He grew up living and breathing (and eating and drinking) them. But as I watched Mare save a man’s life at the “Lehigh River” and talk with her partner beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge overlooking the Delaware River, my inner fiction writer was contemplating what it takes to bring a place to life. Specifically, how to accomplish this if you’ve never stepped foot there.

This question is timely for me as I’ve been considering setting my next novel in a place I’ve never been. I reached out to the ever-wise Writer Unboxed community to see if anyone else has encountered this issue and learn how they’ve approached it (you can join our conversation thread here). Today, I’m sharing ideas and tips for planning a virtual research trip based on what I’ve learned.

Experience the place through your characters’ eyes.

Creating an authentic sense of place is about more than getting the details right, it’s about experiencing the place as your character would.

Fellow WUer Deb Peterson begins her research with a virtual visit via Google maps. She uses the satellite view to study its topography and terrain, street view for an on-the-ground perspective, and the measuring tool to calculate distances to ensure her characters are walking (and horseback riding) between places in a realistic amount of time.

Historical fiction writer Claire Greer casts a wide research net, seeking out photographs, personal accounts, historical newspapers, artwork by people who were there at the time, as well as old photos and maps. “I’m chasing a visual sense of the place—in three dimensions and with all five senses,” says Greer. “I want to know just how high the cliff was at Gallipoli when the first Australian troops landed there in 1915. I want to know how long it took to get from the base at Etaples to the frontline trenches, on a train, by truck, by cart, by horse, and by foot in 1916. I want to know what the weather felt like on a particular September day in Belgium in 1917.” (Fun fact: Claire dug so deeply into her WWI setting she end up doing a PhD in history!)

Travel back in time.

Understanding how a place has evolved over time adds subtle authenticity. Butch Wilson relies on Google Earth’s Timelapse function to see how places have changed over the past 30 years. This helps ensure his characters don’t end up in a building or on a road that did not exist at that time.

Mystery writer Laura Seeber is a former geologist and environmental inspector whose job required her to be a “real estate detective,” researching the history of properties to determine if there were any problems with them. She dug up clues by researching old maps, exploring the land, and interviewing neighbors and local officials. Coincidentally, she uses many of the same tools to infuse her story settings with historically accurate details. They include:

Fire insurance maps – Dating back to the late 1800s, these detailed city maps were originally created to help fire insurance companies assess their liability in urbanized areas. They can help a writer reconstruct the past by offering unique insight into the life of a city, including its water distribution system, the types of construction materials used in its structures, and special buildings that contributed to the community’s economic and social landscape. You can find archives of U.S. fire insurance maps through the Library of Congress or by searching the University of Central Florida’s collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps by state.
Topographic maps – These maps use elevation contour lines to provide details about the shape of the Earth’s surface. They include information about geographic features, like roads, railroads, rivers, streams, lakes, boundaries, mountains, and changes in elevation over time. They can show you how a town or landscape has evolved. The U.S. Geological Survey has a searchable database. For locations outside the U.S., OpenTopoMap is billed as the largest crowd-sourced topographic map project in the world.
Plat maps – Also known as “plats,” these maps illustrate how tracts of land are divided and record the land’s size, boundary locations, nearby streets, flood zones, and any easements or rights of way. Title search records can fill in additional details, like who has occupied the land and who owns it and can hint at their financial struggles or triumphs. Plat maps can be found on the public records websites for the appropriate towns and counties. You may also access them at the town or city hall.
Historical fiction writer John J Kelley studied photos and read first-person accounts of France in WWI—in both Paris and on the front—when researching his novel, The Fallen Snow. Kelley placed his protagonist, an infantry sniper, in a specific division and used the history of that unit to plot his likely path from training to landing in France to his destination on the front via troop train and into the battle that left him maimed. For the train scenes that took place both stateside and in France, John dug up old train schedules, including one for a line in Virginia that shut down decades ago, and historical photos of train stations in France. “It felt crucially important to me to find an actual route that my protagonist could have taken in the period,” explains Kelley. “It gave me a sense of reality to know someone, perhaps a young man like my protagonist, might have been sitting in a real railcar in that very same month a century earlier.”

Speak to the senses.

While sites like TripAdvisor can tell you a lot about local attractions and provide feedback about visitors’ firsthand experiences, biblical fiction writer Natalie Hart turns to YouTube to flesh out the sensory details. Once she knows the places, activities, and businesses she wants to learn about, she searches YouTube to see if someone has posted a video about it. Considering that more than 720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, according to TubeFilter, the odds are in our favor. Hart opts for video because “it offers a similar view that you would have if you were there, so there’s a chance to notice details that fact-driven research can’t give you.”

One thing video can’t provide is smell. Since smell is such an evocative sense to share with the reader, Hart posts requests on social media, asking people who have been to destinations she’s writing about to share what they smelled like.

Romantic suspense writer and Scrivener expert Gwen Hernandez seeks the “local perspective” by searching for blog posts from people who live in the area she’s researching. She’s also found children’s books to offer interesting insights and a unique perspective.

As you research your setting, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What would you want to know and experience? Science fiction writer John E. Simpson is setting his novel on an asteroid turned spaceship traveling through space. To bring this imaginative setting to life in a realistic way, John began with a list of questions he’d need to answer to gain the reader’s trust. How big does the asteroid need to be? How many people could live on it? What propels it? How does it communicate?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed