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Researching Your Story’s Setting

How to use research to create vivid settings

Your setting is the backdrop of your story.

Without it, your characters are acting on a bare stage. Brilliant settings make narratives vivid and can create a memorable sense of atmosphere.

The internet is a fabulous tool for researching and you can travel from your desk.

But, nothing quite replaces the experiences and inspiration you can unearth when stomping across beaches, castle ruins, or wandering through quaint villages on the hunt for that perfect setting. 

Research doesn’t necessarily mean jetting off across the globe. It could just mean visiting a nearby location or an area with which you’re well acquainted but need to experience with writer’s eyes. Doing this helps you notice new details, particularly sensory ones, and fill any gaps in your knowledge.

Doing in-depth research brings your story to life and allows the reader to enjoy the experience and engage on a deeper level. I’ve visited various places around the world after reading about them in a novel. I was also delighted to find that each spot was exactly as I’d imagined it thanks to the excellent research techniques of the authors.

Recently, I bought a beautiful campervan which I’ve called ‘Snoopy’ because it resembles Charles Schulz’ beloved Peanuts character. It’s enabled me to travel to all sorts of locations related to Viking/Anglo-Saxon history that I’m using to write my latest YA novel. 

Before you begin live research, however, there are a few steps to take…

Start with desktop research

Find out as much as you can about a place before you visit. It’ll help guide you as to what you might want to look out for while you’re there.

There are some great tips here.

If you can’t travel to your location at the moment, desktop research is a great place to start and should give you enough information to begin writing your story until you are able to get there.

Create a discovery folder 

Creating a space, either physical or digital, to store your research notes helps you to stay focused on what questions you need to answer. Keeping all your notes together will help when you begin the writing process as all the information you need will be handy.

You could start to curate a book board or handy scrap book that you can carry around.

Draw up a Q&A

Once you’ve prepared your story’s outline and character bios, you’ll know the core and rhythm of your story. Having an idea of what you’re writing first will throw up questions and gaps you’ll need to fill. 

For example, when writing my Viking novel, I created a list of ideas/subjects that I needed to know more about:

You can add to your list as you dig deeper into your story and the research process.

Make a day of it

I’ve enjoyed many wonderful day trips exploring Northumberland and the Yorkshire coast, recently, not as a fish-and-chip-eating tourist, but as a writer. Standing in the spot your main character stands is a powerful motivator. 

Taking pictures of places that appear in your story, or speaking to locals about specific facts and historical accuracies, adds rich layers to your research.

Authenticity over accuracy

As writers’ we sometimes need to flex the truth. 

Research will always play a massive part in a story’s setting, but we mustn’t sacrifice the flow of the story in a bid to stuff in facts and figures. It should read like a story not an in-depth news report. Within reason, readers will suspend belief if your writing carries them on an effortless journey and wraps them up in a wonderful, fictive dream.

For example, I chose to use English words in my 866 AD novel so my young adult audience wasn’t pulled out of the story trying to translate every medieval phrase and place name. ‘York’ rolls off the tongue much easier than ‘Eoforwic’!

However you approach your research, enjoy it. May it spark many ideas.

About Shelley Wilson

Shelley Wilson is a British, genre-straddling author of sixteen books including motivational self-help books and young adult fantasy fiction. She has a crazy black cat called Luna and is obsessed with vampires, Tudor and Viking history as well as exploring castles


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