When we write best, it’s when we can envision in our minds and in our hearts the scene playing out in front of us, then put pen to page and make those words come to life.
For my latest project, I was writing a novel that takes place in Montreal, my home city. As such, I thought to myself, I need to do very little research at all – after all, I live here, I breathe this air, I walk these streets, this city is as much a part of my soul as the other places I’ve lived in my life.
However, when I went about writing the book, I found that it still was extremely helpful for me to gather reference to help me keep in mind as I was writing out the various chapters. I gather several different kinds of reference:
- Links to websites
- Historical Data
The most important type of reference for me is my image bank. Sometimes when I’m sitting in my office writing the words, I need an image or a piece of music to spike my sensory memory of the place I’m writing about. The best way to do this, of course, is to go and take your own pictures. If you can go to the places where the action takes place, walk in those footsteps, and take pictures, then you can also jot down some notes about what it was like.
For example, let’s say I have a scene that takes place on Mont Royal. For those of you not from Montreal, this is the mountain that gives Montreal its name, and lies in the very centre of the island the city is on. If I describe it from memory, I might talk about things like:
- The path that winds through the trees makes you feel like you’re in a real forest
- There are many people on the mountain, jogging, walking, playing, biking, climbing the stairs, walking their dogs
- In the summer people are often playing music on the central plaza, particularly if there is an event like a soccer game
- If I instead go there in person, and take pictures, then that can jog my memory of some of the more subtle elements of being on the mountain:
- The way the light filters through the trees
- The look of the leaves as the sun pierces through to show the veins
- The feeling of the cool wind on my face in the early morning
- The heat causing sweat on my skin as I hike the mountain in high summer
- The feeling of the gravel crunching under my shoes
- The way the wind brushes through the fine hairs on my arms
- The blue sky is too piercing to look at directly
…And so on.
Images are not the only useful bits of reference to keep in mind. Sometimes, it’s not possible to actually go to the location in person, and we must rely on research to get the useful data. As such, I usually get together a list of links to websites that will help me learn more about the locations that I write about. If it’s possible to find first-hand accounts instead of relying on dry data, that’s always helpful as well.
Lastly, you may need some Historical Data as well. For example, even though my latest book takes place only back in 2007, since it was a few years ago now I needed to refresh my memory of what was happening in the world in 2007. I found that:
- Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as the Prime Minister of the UK
- Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in France
- The first person was convicted in Guantanamo Bay
- There was the first “surge” in Iraq
Even if you think that events like this have no impact on events in your book, they may. I think it’s important to have an idea of the context. Also, current events may be a topic of discussion for your characters. Not only that, but there may be a historical reason to research specific events. In my case, being that it was a gay romance novel, I was interested in Pride in 2007. When I compared to Pride in 2014, I found that the festival in 2007 was actually a lot shorter. There had also been some turmoil that had caused the organizing committee to drop an event. Never assume that the way things are today are the way they were even a few years ago.
When we are thinking about books that take place in other worlds, such as with Science Fiction or Fantasy, then I think it’s really important to put yourself in a mindset to imagine what sort of events might be going on in that world that would impact the characters in your story.
No matter where or when your book takes place, taking the time to think about the world and the environment, all the way from the macro level of global events, down to the micro level of what it feels like to walk through a location – it all combines together to enable you to create a rich description that adds to the quality of your writing.