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Writers’ Research Part 2: Characters and settings

24 August, 2009

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).

Observing characters

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.
  • Speech
    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 jargonthe technical terms common in a profession or industryand 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).

Observing settings

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.

  • Interviewing
    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
  • Photographs
  • General references, such as encyclopedias
  • Maps
    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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. noobcake permalink
    13 October, 2010 7:15 pm

    What an informative post! I came across your blog as I was writing a piece on how I conduct research for my own writing projects. I’ve spent a few hours here, reading through your posts. I’m so happy to find your blog because so far the blogs I’ve visited about writing have seemed a little cold and lacking passion. It’s refreshing to see you are enthusiastic about writing and actually interact with those who post replies. I particularly enjoyed your post about the weird and crazy characters you can find at a writers group, I found myself nodding in agreement! Marsha, you have provided me with my happy smile for the day!


    • 4 November, 2010 10:03 am

      Hi Dave, Thanks for the feedback. (And sorry about the delay in responding. I’ve been overseas and simply could not cope with the internet cafes there and foreign keyboards.)
      The blog has been valuable in helping me put into my own words the issues and ideas about writing that interest me. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.
      The post about the odd people came about after I participated in two writing groups. I used to teach issues in group communication, a subject that includes identifying helpful and non-helpful roles people take on when part of a group. It was fascinating to see these textbook examples played out in real life during the groups’ sessions.


  2. 4 September, 2009 10:42 pm

    Coincidentally, I just picked up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, not knowing if I’d like it. Have you read the book?


    • 5 September, 2009 9:50 pm

      Yes, it’s one of my favourites. He does a good job explaining the role of the subconscious and provides practical information about working as a writer. I also enjoyed the first part, where he writes about his life and how he started writing. I’ll be interested in what you think of it.


      • 11 May, 2010 12:59 am

        I finished On Writing last week. It was an easy, entertaining read, but I’m not sure I learned anything new from it. Of the advice offered, my favorite was instruction given by John Gould, the newspaper editor for whom King worked as a teenager, who said: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”


        • 25 May, 2010 10:25 am

          Ooh, that’s a hard one, especially for writers who like to write from their sub/unconscious rather than planning a story. It’s also a hard one in terms of short stories. The trend now seems to be what could be called ‘loose’ or atmospheric stories–perhaps not much gets resolved or nothing particularly dominates. The interest for readers is in slipping into the lives of the characters for that short space and seeing what happens. I’m thinking of writers like Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore here. The skill is in the balance: Some details are important to readers’ sense of the story, and make it memorable, and some details slip over the line and are indulgent writing that adds nothing to the story. It’s harder to ‘kill your darlings’ in a short story than in a novel, where there’s often a much clearer storyline.


  3. 4 September, 2009 1:25 pm

    Such great reminders, Marsha. I would add that description can be sufficiently revealing of character when it leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. The best writers are able to imbue the tiniest gesture with much meaning.


    • 4 September, 2009 2:38 pm

      You’re so right, Robin. If too much of the research about a character goes into the story, the writer leaves little opportunity for readers to engage with the story via their imagination. Stephen King wrote something similar about readers participating by drawing on their own experiences to understand a character. In his first popular book, Carrie, he expected readers would understand Carrie because of their own experiences in high school, either being an outcast like Carrie or knowing such outcasts existed. He often develops a character by using a dominant and revealing trait, but omits other bits of character-based information that readers can fill in for themselves.


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