Writers’ Research Part 2: Characters and settings
Your research can make your characters and setting believable, interesting, perhaps unforgettable. Three types of research writers can consider are keeping an observations notebook, into other information sources.
1. The observations notebook
You can research fictional characters and settings well before beginning your story or novel. Visual artists often sketch whatever interests them. Later, they may turn some of these into finished works. If you use your notebook to write details about characters and settings, you will have a store of material to draw on.
If observational research appeals, perhaps set a daily goal, such as observing and jotting down the details about one person (the tired waitress, the overly talkative writing group member), and one scene (the coffee shop, the writing group’s meeting place).
Consider the different ways to create your characters and make them memorable.
- Clothing and possessions
When considering what your characters wear (e.g., shoes, clothes, accessories) and items they have with them, remember that the unusual is memorable. Be on the lookout for what is less common. One day when I was walking in town, I saw an unkempt street-person wearing a silvery New Year’s Eve party hat.You can also write your reflections about what these items communicate. Do they suggest the person’s interest or obsession? Their profession? Culture or subculture? Their age? Their values? Does an item work as a symbol? Crime writer Sara Paretsky, gives her fictional sleuth, V.I. Warshawki, a set of red Venetian wine glasses she inherited from her beloved mother. In the different novels, a wine glass breaks, suggesting how the dangers of her profession in terms of destroying what she loves.
The writer, Jean Saunders, suggests that eavesdropping provides ‘marvellously revealing conversations’. While on the exercise bike at the gym I listened to two teenage girls chatting about boyfriend problems. Very illuminating!
Jot down what people talk about and also their usual speech patterns, accents, and intonation. Record any odd phrases and terms you hear—technical, regional, individual.Giles suggests consulting books on slang and jargon. Good idea up to a point as slang can quickly date your story. And if you use too much jargon—the technical terms common in a profession or industry—and you risk losing your readers. I read a forensic thriller where the author sabotaged the suspense because she included far too much technical detail. The story sunk.
- Body language
How does someone move? What gestures do they use? What are their characteristic physical habits, e.g., running a hand over their face or cracking their knuckles?
A useful exercise is to watch movies and make notes on how the best actors use body language to convey emotions, i.e., to show not tell.
Author Marie Giles suggests consulting books about body language, especially ones relevant to the culture in which your story is set. A gesture can mean ‘go away’ in one culture but quite the opposite in another. Other cultural differences include eye contact (how much and with whom), spatial distance (personal space), and acceptable and unacceptable touching (e.g., hair, clothes, other people, parts of the body).
It’s probably better not to rely solely on your memories about a setting. Can you get there and observe it (or a similar setting) and capture fresh, vivid descriptions. Even if your setting is familiar, investigate with fresh eyes. Record the many details that will make your story seem authentic. For example, Saunders suggests details in your hometown: the kind of façade on the town hall or courthouse, the colour of carpets and curtains in one particular place, the bus route your character would take, the type of fish (or other food) someone would probably eat there.
- Senses. Giles urges writers to capture sensory details when researching setting. When you visit a location, concentrate on what you can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste.
- Mood. Consider the mood of the location. What elements contribute to it?
- Season. If one of your scenes takes place in summer, go to the spot (or a similar one) in summer and record your impressions.
Giles suggests that introspective writers miss chances to gather information from others. Talk with people who are engaged in the work and activities pertinent to your story—a profession, trade, hobby, sport, or passion. When writer Janet Evanovich was developing her successful crime writing series, she interviewed law enforcement experts to understand what to include.
- Finding people
Let your friends and others know the kinds of information you want. It is amazing how often someone knows someone else who can help. When Saunders began researching a novel set in an English region where willow baskets were made, she discovered that a friend’s father had been a basket-maker.
You can also ‘cold call’, i.e., contact someone whom you do not know and explain what you need. The person may feel flattered that you want their expert advice.
Planning an interview is a skill. If you have not conducted an interview before, read up on interview techniques.
Evanovich suggests that interviewers not waste people’s time. This means doing your homework first: Gather basic information and check your facts. During the interview, you can assess if your information is correct and complete.
You can interview people face-to-face, over the phone, or send them a questionnaire to complete. You can interview people informally, seeing where the topic takes them. Or you can be formal, with set questions.
Other sources of information
Writers are often advised to restrict their writing to what they know. A better suggestion is to research so that you know about what you are writing.
Possible sources of information, online or otherwise:
- Films with similar characters or settings
- Guidebooks, travel brochures, foreign phrase books
- Newspapers and magazines, plus newsletters of clubs and special interest groups
- General references, such as encyclopedias
Saunders warns about losing credibility with readers if you locate fictional places wrongly, e.g., placing your fictional bazaar in a residential area. Some writers are good at mixing location facts with their fiction. Paretsky includes so many factual details about Chicago that I am almost convinced that I could find the fictional building where V.I. Warshawki has her office!
It’s useful to collect location details ahead of time. Saunders wrote that whenever she went on holiday, she collected booklets and took photographs in case she used the locale for one of her novels. If you find something interesting, put it in your file or observations notebook.
Janet Evanovich, How I Write: Secrets of a bestselling author. Janet Evanovich, with Ina Yalof. 2006.
Maree Giles, notes from her writing workshop, 2009.
Jean Saunders, The Craft of Writing Romance, 1995.