In-person research for fictional settings

So where has Katherine been these days?  Busy with work, writing, and enjoying family time in preparation for … grad school!  In keeping with my academic goals over the next couple of years, you may see a decidedly research-focused bent to my blog posts. 

We fantasy and science fiction writers draw on much of the real world in our work.  I have always loved the idea of using direct experiences as research for my writing.  I’ve taken classes in everything from knife fighting and archery to foraging and wilderness survival.  But it’s taken me a pathetic amount of time to realize that, just because I can’t take these types of classes on a regular basis, and just because I don’t live in a part of the world where I can tour a castle at the drop of a hat, it doesn’t mean I can’t document experiences in my life on a regular basis to better inform my speculative fiction. 

Namely, I’ve been decent in the past at jotting notes about my surroundings during big vacation trips, but now I’m trying to apply that same principle to more local happenings.  Work seminars, behind-the-scenes site tours, social events – these are all ripe settings for capturing on the page.  I’m trying to focus on the locations that pop up as part of my weekly routine but that take me a little outside of it.  Procrastination is not your friend in this.  Memories erode over time, so discipline and timeliness are your friends. 

As I write my notes, I focus on multiple sensations—obviously the visuals, but also the sounds and smells, the textures and temperatures, and perhaps most importantly the impressions that the place made on me.  Maybe it called to mind a metaphor that will help me convey that setting to the reader in few words.  Or perhaps it evoked a mood that I wish to replicate through my own choice details.  Was the place creepy?  Breathtaking?  If I was there while it was mostly empty, can I imagine it crowded?  If I was there in daylight, would it be illuminated at nighttime, or dark? 

The beauty of this research approach, besides just the richness of details available, is that experiences that might otherwise feel mundane or that might be soon forgotten instead become opportunities to be memorialized in a story.  They enable a character to have a life-changing adventure in a similar place, in a way that feels real to the reader.  Also, you never know when your research may alter the plot.  Perhaps reading a particular note someday will inspire a crucial moment, such a prop that a character will be able to grab and use, or something that evokes a flashback and enables the reader to garner key information in a new way. 

So if you’re a writer, the next time you feel “dragged to” an event, look at it as research.  Hey, even if the location itself ends up being unusable for your purposes, maybe you’ll be exposed to a character idea, a compelling snippet of dialogue, or a new interpersonal dynamic to explore.  Just don’t shirk the important, time-sensitive step of recording the details so you can someday pass them on to the reader!