Monday, June 02, 2008

Settings in other towns

Today I wanted to talk with you all about setting, specifically setting a story in a place you've never been, or one you're writing about from memory. I've always had a difficult time convincing myself to set a story in Oregon. Don't get me wrong, I love Oregon. But I find myself drawn to writing about, dreaming about and researching places I've never been but want to visit. The first book I worked on was set in Edinburgh, Scotland. I've never been to Scotland, but it was sure fun to research. It was also during NaNoWriMo so I went into the Scotland forum and asked them bunches or questions (it was really helpful, I suggest that to anyone writing in November - ask questions in the geographical forums).
I remember reading once that when Laurell K. Hamilton wrote a book set in Arizona (or New Mexico?) she stayed there for a while to better learn the setting. Granted, she's wealthy and famous and it makes sense that she would do that for a book expected to sell that many copies. But what about most authors who aren't able to do that?
The book I'm working on now is set in Oregon. I sort of made up a town that's a composite of a couple I'm familiar with. But I may want to set my next book (partially anyway) in Italy, a town like the one I'll be staying in this summer. I'm trying to figure out what I should do to capture that setting. Lots of pictures? Lots of notes? Describe places I see? The picture above is a picture of the town I'll be living in, Gravina in Puglia. There are lots of caves I guess (I will have to tell you RS writers all about it - can't you imagine all sorts of bad dealings going on in caves?).
Have you ever set a book in a town you've never visited? Or have you vacationed somewhere with the intent of absorbing it as a setting to write about? What are some ways you've captured the setting to recall later when you're actually writing?


Paty Jager said...

Ooooo, I love this topic!

Yes, my first mystery was set in Reno because at the time my dh and I would "vacation" there at least once a year.( A weekend was all the vacation time we had and it was a great place to say the kids needed to stay home) It was the one place we could go and he would completely forget about work. I thought it was so exotic! LOL And after I started writing the book, I actually took a trip, with my friend and first fan, to Reno to go through their prison. Fun!

All of my historicals up to the one I'm working on now, I've traveled to the area, which was in and around Oregon, and I took pictures. I like to feel the place and see it first hand. But I may get a chance before this historical is completely done to go to Helena, MT because my Air Force son is transferring to South Dakota and the quickest way for us to get there and deliver his children after he gets set up is through Montana. But I've been in contact with a wonderful woman at the Montana Historical Society who has sent me information via e-mail and snail mail.

The contemporary that is scratching to get out will bounce from town to town. I'll have to do a lot of digging, but it will mostly be set at rodeo grounds and a fictional Oregon ranch. Oh, and Nationals in Las Vegas me and the old man may have to call that a field trip for my writing this year! LOL

I think the best way to go at putting yourself in the setting if you can't get there are photos and books about the area. If you can get there, it's good to have a character in mind or at least the premise of the story because that makes a difference at how you ovserve and absorb the area. At least it does for me.

Okay, I wrote a book today, but as you can see, I DO love setting!

Alice Sharpe said...

Oh, Lisa this is all so exciting. Gravina in Puglia sounds and looks so exotic! I love this blog!

I have set books in towns I've never visited. Lordy, states, countries I've never visited, even an island that never existed. I look them up on the Internet, ask people questions, call Chamber of Commerce, access web-cams (most cities seem to have one and they seem to be weather related...)

As for recording the place you're visiting to bring it back to life for a book I have found what works best for me is to have some shadowy plot ideas in mind. Knowing, for instance, that I wanted to use the caves in Gravina, I would make sketches, take photos but mostly I would feel the walls and touch the dirt and sniff the air. If I wanted my heroine lost in the dark of one of them, I would figure out a way to get myself in there with no light, if possible. I would think about where she would live and the kinds of stores she would visit and I would visit them. Since I'm always on the trail of a RS, I would go to the graveyard and look around. I'd talk to as many kinds of people as possible and try to anticipate the buildings my heroine would visit. Ad I would try to get a feel for the local wisdoms, traditions and their stories.

I did all this on Maui years ago and then placed a book there -- the plot came as I investigated these kids of things. I talked the police chief and took the boat rides, drove up to the volcano and walked out alone into the cold gray field and just tried to experience as much as I could. And now the adventure my heroine has on Maui is almost more real than the trip was.

I bet you'll do all these things without thinking as your writer's instincts and imagination take over. You're going to have a great time!!!!!

Kendra said...

Setting terrifies me. I'm afraid of making a huge error and having a reader call me on it.

Everything I've written has been set in Oregon. Although there have been scenes in Hawaii and Salt Lake because I know those areas.

Even writing about Oregon makes me a little nervous. I create my own towns so no one can tell me I screwed up.

Genene Valleau said...

Hey, Lisa! Staying in Italy sounds fabulous! Alice and Paty both had great suggestions on how to remember. When I travel some place with the idea of using it for a setting, I take lots of notes, especially about mundane things.

I can also relate to what Kendra said. What if you mess up the setting? Or what if a building you intend to use gets torn down? Or a vacant field becomes the parking lot for apartments between the time you research the setting and the book is published?

To (hopefully!) avoid this, I try not to use specific names of streets or specific businesses, but rather get a flavor for the area and not name names. :)

When are you going to Italy?

Kendra said...

You're staying in that gorgeous city? At first I thought it was just an Italian picture you found. But that's the real place! Amazing. I could find lots of inspiration there. Just looking at the picture fascinates me.

Lisa Pulliam said...

Paty, oooh rodeo grounds?? I can't wait to read that contemporary! Hurry up and write it ;) Thanks for your response!

Alice, I wish I could visit that island. It seemed beautiful!! Thanks for your tips, those are some great ideas. I should share with you some phrases from a interesting Italian phrase book I picked up...those erm phrases should help me get some info!

Kendra, omg me too! That makes me sooo nervous. I get annoyed at random things and I'm sure other people do too. Scares me!

Genene, that's a great idea about mundane things. The flavor of setting that makes it so real. Like the crumbling on the doorway of a taverna (taverna! eeee!). *calming down*. I leave June 26, come back Aug. 3.

Kendra, I couldn't believe it either! That's the picture on the city's wikipedia page. I guess there are churches inside of the caves and all sorts of neat things. It's a small town down south, inland from the arch of the boot.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I am so all over that cave thing (like you didn't know that already!).

Sorry I'm late in posting. I thought I had already!

My answer is - I'm not much help about setting. I've set books in real locations - all the books in my STOLEN series cross several real locations. Some I've been to - like Chicago - some I haven't - like Key Biscayne. Google Earth is my friend, as is the internet. I think it's definitely possible to capture the feel of a location without having been there. The one catch is if you do use real locations, you have to be very careful to get your street names correct. I've been checking, double-checking and triple-checking my location references in my books.

I've also made up locations - the town in the paranormal my agent has is made up. It's also set in Oregon, and the town is a compilation of several towns I like.

Last year I started a book set in Maui after we vacationed there. I loved the area, and though I haven't finished the book, it's a proposal that's sitting around waiting to be finished. I also wrote an earlier adventure book (not published) set in eastern Mexico, then picked a vacation spot specifically because I wanted to see what the area was really like. That helped tremendously - and it was also fun. :) If I had the money I'd travel to all the places I write about - or plan to write about - but that's not particularly feasible. So you do what you can. That's our job as writers - to make a location come alive in the readers' mind whether we've been there physically or not.