Researching A Setting-Specific Story
Let me start by saying thank you for having me on LASReviews. I’ve been looking forward to this since the moment I was asked. I’ll introduce myself quickly then get onto a topic near and dear to my heart—research!
One of the great lessons I’ve learned while living in Ireland has been the importance of research when writing a setting-specific story. While most people won’t have the opportunities I have by living in another country, it doesn’t mean stories can’t have a rich setting. Here are the top five things every writer should make sure to think about when writing a setting-specific story. Forgive me if I use Ireland a lot here. I’m a bit biased!
Location – It doesn’t matter if a story is historical or contemporary, it has to have a setting. Without a location, the story won’t have legs to stand on. One doesn’t have to go into huge detail about where the story is set either, as we already heave preset ideas in our heads thanks to Hollywood. Suggest Ireland and one thinks of patchwork hillsides and fields of green. Say Scotland and automatically we think of men in kilts. Japan and we think of cherry trees and Geisha. Little things sprinkled throughout a story enhance the setting without making the setting the story.
We already know my story, A Piece of My Heart, is set in Ireland. But by adding in some of those little things, such as pubs, a stone circle, sheep, and a flat cap, readers are pulled into the story through enhancing the location.
History – History isn’t just about dates, times, and places. It can be defined as experience, background and things that happen to make us who we are, or what a place has become over time. Everything and everyone has history. Ireland’s history, while respectively a tiny country, is steeped in history, from the earliest known peoples often referred to as Celts, to the Viking raiders who settled here, the Norman invasion, British suppression, Religious oppression, the War of Independence, the Irish Free State, and peace with Northern Ireland. And every person in Ireland is part of that history.
In A Piece of My Heart, Mick’s father told Kate stories from his family so she could pass along the Spillane family history to Mick. Some of those stories revolved around Ireland’s history, including traditional matchmaking. The quick mention of the matchmaking festival, along with the stone circle, brief descriptions of pubs and street scenes fleshes out not just the setting, but also the history of place and people
Culture and Tradition – Culture can be defined as the society in which we live, its social acceptabilities and societal attitudes. The culture in Ireland today is very similar to the American culture, but is still vastly different. Part of Ireland’s culture is its religion—going to church every Sunday, to the priest for confession, and crossing ones self every time one passes a church or graveyard. While Ireland is quite modern today, it’s a fact that divorce was legalized in 1995, and until the early 1990s, condoms were only available by prescription! They were illegal until 1978.
In A Piece of My Heart, Kate’s religious beliefs tangle with womanly desires. While Mick was brought up the same as Kate, many years of Dublin’s influence has changed his perspective. Women are freer in the big city than in the country, so he struggles between manly lusts and respecting Kate for her morals taught by cultural teachings.
Traditions are practices we’ve inherited through our family and/or culture/society. How many things in our own lives do we consider traditions...things we do a certain way because “it’s tradition”? What are the social values of our communities, family expectations, traditions of our heritage... What are things we take for granted every day that are different to someone else?
In A Piece of My Heart, Kate is a traditional Irish woman. She goes to church on Sunday, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she crosses herself when she swears. And she’s shocked when her mother speaks to her of antiquated traditions regarding love and sex. Every tradition and belief Kate was raised with is suddenly called into question.
Language – Language is more than just what we speak, it’s also how we speak it. When writing a story set in another place, we must remember the language those people speak, their inflection, slang, how they phrase sentences. Even the differences in words, such as trunk vs. boot, elevator vs. lift, pants vs. trousers, panties vs. knickers, etc can enrich a story.
Dialects and accents are also part of regional language. Even slang will enrich a story.
In A Piece of My Heart, Gobnait is an excellent example. She comes from the north innercity of Dublin where accents are so thick they’re almost another language.
Part of Ireland’s charm is in her language. Just as Mick and Kate share some intimate words in the Irish language (with English translation), so we also get the pleasure of Gobnait’s special accent. While we’d never want to write a whole book where the lead character has a hard accent to follow, they can make incredible secondary characters.
People – People watching is tantamount to writing a great story. One of the greatest assets any writer can have is observation. Go to malls, busy downtown streets, festivals...anywhere where people gather in large groups. Watch their body movements, how they interact with others, inflections, listen to accents and speech patterns, watch everything about them, and use what you’ve learned to create memorable characters.
So the next time you’re considering writing a story with a specific setting, be it Ireland or in your own hometown, remember that research is the key to a great story. Make your story fun and make it come alive by researching everything that makes up your chosen setting.
Tomorrow I’ll discuss The Importance of Senses.