With a storyteller's eyes...
There are some authors who have a gift for creating a setting in their novels that truly resonates with readers.
In writer-speak, ‘setting’ includes both place and time. For example, in Joanna Cannon’s wonderful novel, Three Things About Elsie, the names of her characters are subtly evocative, as is the inspired reference to Battenburg cake on the cover. You know just from these things what era you’re in, or what generation the characters belong to.
In The Truth Waits, I mention storks, those huge, characterful birds and their messy nests, which are a common sight in Lithuania (there is one in this picture, if you look carefully!). I describe a long, empty beach and the tiny, pure white shells which stand upright in the sand, blown into position by the wind. Only by being there in person was I able to notice those details, but without them my description of the beach wouldn’t be authentic. To my mind, anyway.
My third book (coming soon!) is partly set in South Africa; you can imagine what an enjoyable research trip that was! I stayed with a friend, we went on safari, we visited places that feature in the book. I saw everything through the eyes of an author. I noticed the state of the roads (yes, worse than ours), the products in the shops, the birds and animals that are common sights there but are unfamiliar to us. The exotic plants and trees, the vibrant colours, the huge horizons. Even the grass looks different in South Africa. The town I stayed in, Pietermaritzburg, felt like a British town in the 1960s — it was so quiet, the roads empty, the houses frozen in the last century.
I’ve just been on a short trip to Spain for my next book. I’d been to this particular part of the country before, and had written the first draft of the book using only my memory to set the story in a particular town. But when I went there before, it was as a visitor, not an author. I noticed many different things this time.
All this probably sounds quite trivial, and not necessary for researching a fictional story. For me, though, this research is crucial. It helps me believe in my characters and live within the world I’ve imagined, in turn helping me to create a truly authentic story. And yes, some of the details might still be wrong, but they will be less wrong than they would be if I hadn’t spent time in the actual setting of my story.
So, dear friends, when I say I’m going on a research trip, you might be tempted to wink and nudge and send me an amusing emoji. I don’t blame you; I freely admit I’m choosing settings which give me the chance to visit some interesting places. That’s part of the fun of being an author. I would never have thought of going to Lithuania if I hadn’t set part of my story there.
Travelling for the purposes of research is hugely enjoyable, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do it. But understand this: what I’m doing is genuine research. It helps me create a ‘real’ world in my stories, which I would be unable to do with desk or online research alone. My settings are authentic, because I make sure they are. I hope that shines through in my novels.
Next stop? The world is my oyster (winking emoji).