Setting Research: When You Didn’t Write What You Know

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

A woman floats peacefully in a swimming pool at night, a spangled view of the city behind her.

The image wouldn’t leave my head, and over time turned into a central scene in my debut romance novel, PAINTING CELIA.

Naturally, my character needed a house with a pool and a view. We don’t have those where I live in the Pacific Northwest, so I decided she would live in Los Angeles.

After my first draft, I realized I was making up an awful lot about LA. My armchair research in Google Street View might not be enough.A recent promotion had left me feeling rich. What if I went to LA and just looked around? Got a feel for places like the ones in my book? That’s what real authors do, right? What does one do on a research trip, though? How does one define “local color” and where do you get it?

I decided to “visit my characters” as though they were friends who would entertain me in their homes, show me where they worked, and tell me how the pressures and benefits of living in LA had shaped them.

I meticulously planned an itinerary, researching businesses and neighborhoods that were similar to those in my novel. One character—she of the swimming pool—lived up in the Hollywood Hills, another in Koreatown, and one ran a business in Boyle Heights. 

Giddy, I booked a weekend flight, a hotel, and a far-too-expensive car. I nearly expected my characters to pick me up at the airport, so immersed was I in the idea that I was flying to their home.

And suddenly I was there, driving along a straight boulevard underneath palm trees. I used a hands-free voice recorder to save notes about the way the sun hit terra cotta apartment buildings, the vivid murals that flowed around windows to third floor balconies, and how the dust collecting on my dashboard was golden.

I didn’t even hit up my hotel first. Instead, I drove straight to a community art gallery I’d found which seemed similar to one in my book. Parking was as hard as I’d heard, but I found a space and hoped I’d find my way back after. I walked in, wearing a long-sleeved sweater that had been appropriate for my flight but now marked me as a sweaty outsider. I asked the woman at the front desk if I could ask questions about their operations, for my novel. 

Within minutes, I was speaking to three bemused but flattered employees, all incredulous that anyone would write fiction about what they do. I walked out with far more detail than I could use and a glow I can still feel today. I did the same at two other businesses that weekend, receiving each time the same generosity.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books