Friday, September 16, 2011

Setting: Writing What We Know Vs. Doing Research

Setting: Writing What We Know Vs. Doing Research

by Jacqueline Seewald

This topic has been discussed previously on Author Expressions. But I believe it’s
important enough to consider again. So I’m offering my own take on the subject.

You’ll notice that a lot of mystery and romance writers set their novels in places they either live in or have lived in. This may seem provincial, but in fact, it makes for good writing. If we know a place well, we can create a realistic setting, an intriguing background for our novels. Setting is one of the important components of any piece of fiction—plays short stories or novels.

Not all of my novels are set in New Jersey. However, most of them are.
This is because I was born in New Jersey and have lived in the state
my entire life. I like to write novels that have authenticity of setting.
All my YA novels like STACY’S SONG are set in New Jersey.
My children’s picture book A DEVIL IN THE PINES was published
in New Jersey by Afton Publishing; a faction book, that can be found in
both school and public libraries. The book explores the Jersey Devil

and the Pine Barrens using fictional characters. The setting is crucial.

My adult mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth Kim Reynolds, librarian,
is--you guessed it--set in New Jersey. These three novels:
and my new novel THE TRUTH SLEUTH are set in Central New Jersey
where I lived for forty years. I also taught English
at the high school and middle school as well as the university.
So again this led to authenticity in the novels’ settings.

THE TRUTH SLEUTH, for instance, is largely set in a NJ high school.

Do I consider research unimportant? Absolutely not! Every novel requires
a certain amount of research, some more than others. My paranormal historical romance TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS required extensive research. And I enjoyed
every minute of it. I’ve been a fan of Regency romance for many years and wanted
to do my own version of such a novel. But to do it right, I had to research the
details so I made no mistakes—or as few as possible.

I believe the best novels combine elements of what we actually know with research into what we need to find out. I’m no fan of info dumping in fiction, but writers need to read and discover a lot more information than they will actually use in their novels.

What is your opinion? Do you prefer authentic contemporary fiction, well-researched
historic fiction--or perhaps you have a preference for fantasy, science fiction or
horror novels which create imaginary worlds? What suits your fancy?


Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

I'm not a huge fan of research but sometimes it is fun - like when the heroine in The Visionary 'researched' the old homstead they were remodling - so much interesting information!


T.W. Fendley said...

I LOVE them both--research and pure imagination. Guess that's why I write historical fantasy and sci fi. :) As a reader, I simply enjoy good storytelling. I appreciate when an author skillfully helps me broaden my knowledge, too.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pam,

You're so right. Research can turn your mind in many new directions and provide fascinating material.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, T. W.,

Historical fantasy and sci-fi are genres I enjoy reading. Probably the best writing is an amalgam of imagination and reality, combining the best that a writer can provide.

Keith Cronin said...

My first book had three main settings, none of which were places I lived, and it required a ton of research.

For my second book (the only the actually sold), I was writing during an extremely busy time in my life, and so I chose to set the book in my old hometown, partially because the geography of the book was not crucial, but also so I wouldn't have to spend a ton of time researching it, yet could still imbue the story with some authentic "local color." (Most of the book takes place in a hospital, so it wasn't terribly important where that hospital was located.)

I like both approaches, and will probably continue to employ them both, based on how crucial the setting is to my book.

Great topic - thanks for posting!

Ellis Vidler said...

I love getting to know new places through books I read, so I'm happy to know when the research is good. I always worry about getting it right too. If the setting is important, it had better be right. You can bet someone will notice and point out any errors. :-)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Keith,

Those of us who've had the misfortune to spend a lot of time in a hospital appreciate a realistic hospital setting. I think your novel is more effective because you've used an actual place as a background setting for a contemporary novel.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


You're so right about people finding mistakes if the details aren't right. In particular, I found that out when I wrote my Regency romance TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS. I was lucky enough to get Mary Balogh to be one of the first readers and believe me, she still found things to correct. I was able to make corrections before the ARCs were printed.

Betty Gordon said...

Good post and it came at a time when I needed to hear it. I like to write what I know, but even so, research is always required. For example, if I were writing about Dallas (my original home), I would still have to research because of changes in the city -- progress (!?). Sorry for the length of the post, but I'm trying to decide on my next project (I've started four) and can't settle, but dreamed about the words 'write what you know' and now your blog! Wheeee, now I know my direction. Many thanks for your insight which is always on target.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your 'settings' blog. I take a special look at the ones in New Orleans and too, Stephaie Plum is a 'Jersy girl' - LOL
Jackie Griffey

Diana Driver said...

Research is a major part of my life, so much so that I can lost in it for days if not weeks. However, knowing a subject thoroughly allows the author to simplify and add concise and specific details that will bring the setting to life.

LJ Garland said...

Hey Jacqueline-
I like contemporary fiction and I love it when the author weaves in details that make me feel as though I'm standing right there with the character. I also like sci-fi, but that has it's own issues. LOL And just like contemporary, I love it when the author can put me right there on that foreign world with the characters. Challenging!
Great Post! :o)

Maryannwrites said...

Even though I primarily write about places I know, I still do a lot of research and go out looking for locations. That way I can describe in detail a certain setting for a scene. In one book I had to plan a stakeout and I really enjoyed finding just the right old house that the cops would be watching, as well as figuring out where they would be "hiding in plain sight." By looking for an actual location, I found a gas station across the street, where cops could pose as customers and workers, as well as a small diner just down the street.

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

Doing research for books is great fun. Yes, I use what I know from twenty-plus years working in that field to write my Regan McHenry Real Estate Mysteries, but finding out about Ohlone burials, how avection fog works, accidental mummification, Wicca, how much money was spent by terrorists on 9/11 to name a very few of the topics needed for write-what-you-know mysteries makes my day fascinating.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Jacqueline: Great slant on the topic, and I enjoyed reading it. I grew up in Florida and my first book was a regional one, but I was drawn to medieval France and stayed there ever since. I guess I take Florida and its history for granted, although we've been under five flags and have an awesome history. Thanks for the post.

Joe Prentis said...

I don't think there is any substitute for detailed research, and I do more than my share of that. Having once worked in law enforcement and having a law degree, I try to include things that will catch the reader's attention while being factual. It bothers me when an editor will insist that a certain scene is not realistic, no doubt having knowledge that came from watching crime shows on television. It is very difficult to please everyone because there is too much wrong information in books and novels. We writers should try our best not to add to the confusion.

Joe Prentis

Joyce Yarrow said...

Since I'm leaving in 2 weeks for a month-long visit to India to research settings for a novel (and I live in Seattle) it's obvious my preference is to write about places I want to know about, rather than those with which I'm familiar... That said, the book I'm writing with an Indian author is set in both countries, so I have a chance to do both - lucky me!

Terry Odell said...

After writing a book set someplace I'd visited, but never lived, I decided it would be easier to set the next in my home town. However, because I used a real city, I had to pay so much more attention to how things worked in their local law enforcement system. The "outside stuff" is easy, but it's all the other details we take for granted that have to be researched as well. I now make up towns set in places I've visited, lived in (my current release is set right here in my Colorado mountain setting) or know people who can help me.

You absolutely can't take for granted that what is "normal" where you live is the same everywhere.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Betty,

When someone mentions Dallas I always think of the nighttime soap opera of that name. You're right about having to research changes in places when you're writing contemporary fiction. I recently visited the Rutgers humanities library in NJ and was amazed at the changes that have taken place since I wrote THE INFERNO COLLECTION. I needed to update for the 4th Kim Reynolds novel that I've just started writing.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jackie,

New Orleans is such a great setting for mystery and romance novels. I love books set there like Stella Cameron's recent trilogy. As for Stephanie Plum, I just finished Smokin' Seventeen, Evanovich's latest. She does get the flavor of Trenton.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maryann,

Your authenticity in mystery fiction helped get your novel great reviews. Good example of how really knowing your setting makes a difference.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Diana,

Your statement regarding setting is so true. When you know your setting, you can provide vivid details and imagery that bring the novel to life for the reader.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, L.J.,

I confess that as a reader I love settings that are foreign to me.
That could mean another part of the U.S. that's not familiar to me like the West or the South as well as foreign countries.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Nancy,

It's a great idea to use your background in real estate as a setting for a mystery series. Very original!

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Your knowledge of Medieval France is amazing. I always enjoy reading your historical blogs. But I think you should try a mystery set in Florida. I believe you'd do a very special book.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Joe,

With law enforcement, a writer really has to know their stuff besides doing lots of research.
I've got my older son Andrew helping me with the new novel I'm working on because he is a criminal defense attorney in New Brunswick and his knowledge is first-hand info I could never know myself.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Joyce,

I know you get your info from first-hand travel. Your knowledge of Russia made your mystery novel unique and special. Seattle is another great city for setting a mystery novel though.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

I found similar problems. I created a fictional town. But it bears a striking resemblance to the one I lived in for forty years.
However, I fictionalized a great deal. Yet law enforcement details must be exact. So that takes research.

The Warbler said...

I love research. My historical fiction usually takes place in the late 1800's to the mid 1950's.

The computer has made it so much easier than the days of yore when I'd spend hours in musty basements going through micro film, libraries, etc.

The key is: we write about what interests us.

A writer--and I believe, generally all persons--must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have given us a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art. Jorge Luis Borgess

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Warbler,

Writing about what interests us makes it fun rather than work.
Thanks for including the beautiful quote from Jorge Luis Borgess.

Anonymous said...

I write mostly imaginative stories, but that doesn't mean details of setting are simply made up. There are reasons, for instance, why towns are set up where they are (nearness to water, transportation, etc.) and these can suggest details to help make your imaginative location come alive, whereas if you write of places you already know, these types of details are taken for granted. Historical atlases can be a good tool, to find a location and transfer it to your "made-up" landscape.

Carole Price said...

I love reading international intrigue books, learning about places I've never been. My first book took place on Martha's Vineyard. I traveled to England and Scotland for research. Sorry to say, that book remains in a drawer.

Twisted Vines takes place in Livermore, CA, where I live; however, I've dropped in hints of where I'm originally from, Ohio, and characters with backgrounds I'm familiar with. This book was much easier to write.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, James,

Your suggestion of using historical atlases in the creation of setting is a really good one--very helpful.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Carole,

Novels of international intrigue do take a lot of research. Hold on to that novel--you never know.
And good luck with Twisted Vines, it sounds like a very interesting book, and obviously you're comfortable with a familiar setting.

Morgan Mandel said...

I dislike research, but give in when I have to. Sometimes I make up streets and places, but when I don't, I have to make sure the details are correct. The Internet is great for that!

Morgan Mandel

Alice Duncan said...

Interesting post and questions, Jacquie! I write books set in places I know, more or less, but in a historical period. I prefer to stay as far away from reality as possible :-)

Unknown said...


I so agree with you. Most of my books are set in my hometown, Bronx, NY. I love the area, it is the most varied area of NYC and there is so much people don't know about the Bronx. So there's always room for a little reader education.

Thanks for the great post!

Gayle Martin said...

You absolutely have to do your homework. It doesn't matter what you are writing about, there will be readers out there who are experts on any given subject, and the last thing you want is for one of them to post a review somewhere stating that your facts are wrong.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Research is my favorite aspect of writing and I always visit the settings of my novels. I'm fortunate that I've lived in nine states so I have plenty of background research for countless books, which I augment with online map services to refresh my memory.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Morgan,

It is sometimes easier to make up places or fictionalize real one--I always think of William Faulkner in that regard.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Alice,

Your 1920's set novels always have a ring of authenticity. You're definitely doing it right!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Dee,

I meet a lot of people from the Bronx over on the NJ side. It's a great setting for historical novels as well as contemporaries.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Gayle,

You're right. Sloppy research shows up and can destroy a novel for readers. Doesn't do much for the reputation of the author either!

Jacqueline Seewald said...


You teach us by example. It is very important to visit the settings of novels by authors. For fantasy writers and sci-fi it's a bit different. But even imaginary worlds must seem real to the reader and so be fully described.

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