Researching Story Locations

While preparing for the second draft of my WIP, I finally had to face the fact that my fantasy was about to become a reality. It was time to create timelines, fact check and do research to make sure all my ideas lined up with the possibilities of real life. I had a concern about the location of my story and whether or not it’s weather was in line with the ideas I had for my plot. Since I’ve only been to my story’s location once in my life, for just a few days (and while my mind was still young and not as tuned in to details) I hunted down some locals.

Unfortunately for me, the initial response wasn’t favorable. I had big ideas about hurricanes and tropical storms in a part of the world that hasn’t seen either one in several decades. To say I was crushed was a huge understatement. The storms played a major role in my story so taking them out was not an option. Changing my location was not ideal but it seemed to be the only thing I could do. Begrudgingly, I started looking at other parts of the United States to fulfill my story’s needs. Since I’m not familiar with many parts of the world, other than where I’ve grown up, I had to get creative to find the information. Here’s how I did it:

  • Twitter & Facebook. If you’ve ever wondered if Twitter and Facebook are a benefit or a hindrance to writers, here’s one check mark for the pro column. I’m lucky enough to have friends in many different parts of the world, all of which were more than happy to help. Even better, I’m a member of several online writing groups so I put the word out there as well. The great thing about writers is they understand exactly why you’re asking so you avoid the raised eyebrows and questions. Social networking groups expand your reach by millions and rather than merely getting lists of facts, you can ask specific questions and find out details only locals can tell you.
  • Wikipedia. When you do need lists of facts, nothing beats Wikipedia. I needed information about the climate and weather, and found statistics about rainfall, storm seasons, sunny days, temperature averages, etc. Each location also has information about size, cities, history, population, culture, tourist spots, economy, government, etc. Everything you could want to know about living there is yours without actually having to live there.
  • Google Maps/Google Earth. Topography was also important to me (What can I say? I’m a setting kind of gal). Using Google Maps, you can map your location, and then, if you download the Google Earth plugin, you have access to up-to-date satellite shots of the landscape. This was immensely helpful in allowing me to see the city limits, tree density, housing density, etc. I was able to zoom all the way in to the tops of houses! If you don’t feel comfortable downloading the plugin (rest assured Google is a reliable source and the plugin didn’t bog down my computer at all), you can also switch over to Satellite, which works very similarly. In any of these modes you can map locations and get directions. I used this feature to figure out how long my character’s drive would be from her “work” to her “home” just outside the city. Talk about being realistic!
  • Friends & Family. After putting out the word about my dilemma, one of my friends informed me she had a friend who had lived in my desired location his entire life and he was happy to answer questions for me. Also, being the distracted writer I am, it took me an entire week to remember my dad had been to every state in the Continental US. He also answered my inane questions…and then some (love you, Dad). Don’t be afraid to ask. You might be surprised where great information will come from.
  • Local Tourist Offices. When I got tired of nagging my friends, I called the local tourist office and nagged her. These offices are well-informed in the type of information you generally need for a story because 1) they live there and 2) many of the questions you need answers to are the same ones tourists ask on a daily basis. Plus, a real person always equals more specific responses.
  • Local Real Estate Websites. This is one of my favorite things to do when I don’t feel like writing but want to accomplish something. Yes, you get to shop for your character’s home…and the best part? No spending limit. This is a great way to find out what neighborhoods are like, typical landscape, housing costs, etc. You can also pick a specific house to represent the one your characters live in. No more trying to remember what color the shudders are or how big the front porch is or where the stairwell is located. Most listings provide at least one picture but some offer many of the inside and outside. Check vacation rental websites as well.

After doing hours of research on my story’s original location, I discovered enough information to stick with it, provided I change a few details in the timeline and alter the types of storms. While I ended up back in the same place, I came out so well-informed that I feel confident about making my location choice an integral part of the story and not just a backdrop.

Have you used any of these resources to research your story locations? Which ones were the most helpful? What other resources can you suggest?

Photo by Bruce Guenter

I am an author and a writing business teacher. I am also a mother of two, a wife, a businesswoman, a nature-lover, and a wannabe yogi. My debut women's fiction novel, PERFECTLY UNDONE, will be released on October 3, 2017. Here, I blog about my journey in publication in the hopes of inspiring others to follow their own dreams.

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Comments (6)

  1. Glad it worked out! Tourist offices (town websites) have been extremely helpful to me. I have also recently discovered Google books. I haven’t used it much but it has helped me find small bits of information I couldn’t find on just a regular Google search.

  2. You are the second author that I know who checks Google Earth to make the setting of the novel Realistic (Julie Kibler also does it). It shows a real commitment to your novel, but I wonedr if readers who enjoy the stoiry line care much about the small deatils. Maybe they do, but most probably don’t. But I understand the problem of writing a fiction story abouit storms, where storms don’t happen often. But it should be fascinating if your novel can capture the experiences and emotions of people caugth up in a storm. That should be realistic.

    1. It means a lot to me to put myself in the middle of the story as much as possible.  Total immersion makes it more real for me and makes the words flow so much easier. We’re lucky in this day and age to have access to things like Google Earth!

  3. Yay! So glad you didn’t have to switch locations after all.  I appreciate all your hard research though because though I probably wouldn’t know about the location you are writing about, if a  writer were to write about where I lived and got it all wrong, it would turn me off from the book. 

    1. I’ve heard that from a lot of readers, which is another reason why it’s so important to me.  I would hate for a story I love so much to be put aside for something like that.

      And I’m so glad too!  😀

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