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Researching Your Setting

frenchheadshot2In two words: Do it.

Real World

If your fiction is set in the real world, you’ll want to include setting details that give your story color and depth–verisimilitude. The best way to create that is to research the location you choose. Where in Oklahoma City is that park in relation to the State Capitol? Just how cold does it feel atop Pike’s Peak in July? How long would it take to stroll across Golden Gate Bridge?

Nowadays, Google makes it ridiculously easy to do this type of research…but of course, the best way to do it is to go there. I set my novel Colors of Deception on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, Oklahoma. Conveniently enough, I live about twenty minutes from there, so I was able to spend several days a week there while writing my first draft. I wrote in a student lounge or outside on a bench, all the while soaking up the sights, scents, and sounds of my surroundings. Many of those details made it into the book. I wouldn’t have known to include them had I not experienced them firsthand.

Contrary to what you might think, you’re not doing this kind of research to placate those readers who are familiar with the location you’ve chosen. Many students and alums of Oklahoma Christian University have contacted me with feedback on the novel’s setting–and not all of that feedback has been positive. Some took exception to my changing the layout of a building to fit a certain scene. Others simply found it uncomfortable to read a story set in a place where they live or have lived. Of course, the fact that the storyline includes demons stalking students might contribute to the discomfort. ; )

No, when you research your setting, you’re not doing it for the readers who know the place inside and out. You’re doing your homework research for the readers who’ve never been there. They need to see what your characters see, smell what your characters smell, hear what your characters here, touch what your characters touch. When you research your location, you find out little details that take your setting from flat cardboard backdrop to 3-D IMAX. Setting research enables you to immerse your readers in what is, to them, another world.


Oh, did I not mention? Yes, writers of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m talking to you as well. You didn’t think setting research is the job of only chicklit, lit fic, or urban writers, did you? Nay, my hearties, though you set your stories is worlds unknown, still you must research your settings, lest your stories lack the lustre they might otherwise have possessed.

“But wait!” you say. “How can I research my setting when my setting doesn’t even exist?”

Bell tower of St. Annenkirche, Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony

Bell tower of St. Annenkirche, Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony

Well. That’s why I’m here to help. See? This is me. Helping.

And the best way for me to do that is to share another personal example, which will also include another gratuitous link to one of my novels. Sorry ’bout that. ‘Tis just how it goes.

My epic fantasy novel Rethana’s Surrender is set entirely in another world, one where magical powers and dragons and elves exist. In building that world, I invented a crapton of stuff and made rules for how it all works. None of that required research; I made it all up. Boom.


My heroine, the redoubtable Rethana Chosardal, spends half her backstory growing up as a bellringer in a tiny southern town. She and her family live in the top of the belltower. I knew what that should look like, because I’d already visited the belltower that inspired Rethana’s story. But in order to add more tasty tidbits as I wrote, I needed more details.

Enter Wikipedia. Suddenly, I found myself reading about bell metal.

Seriously? Bell metal? I’m a fantasy writer who enjoys painting and hiking and weird word games…and now I’m reading about something as mundane as bell metal*? Really?


Researching your setting will take you all sorts of peculiar places and give you all sorts of new ideas for your story. So go on. Do your homework. Give your characters a real place to live and breathe in, with real sensory input. If you keep your fiction real, your readers will live and breathe there, too.

*It’s actually kinda interesting, as chance would have it.

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