Teachers Write 7.1.16 Researching your Setting with Lisa Schroeder

Happy Friday! Don’t forget that Gae’s hosting Friday Feedback on her blog! It’s a chance to share a bit of your work-in-progress, get feedback, and share feedback with others as well. 

Lisa Schroeder is our guest author here today. She’s written over a dozen books for kids and teens including the popular verse novels for teens I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and CHASING BROOKLYN, her most recent YA novels, THE BRIDGE FROM ME TO YOU and ALL WE HAVE IS NOW, and the middle grade novels IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES, MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, and THE GIRL IN THE TOWER. Lisa is a native Oregonian and lives with her family outside of Portland. She’s visiting us today to talk about researching settings, even when you can’t get there in person.

Setting is so important to a novel. Of course, in some stories it’s more important than others, but still, that sense of place and what it means to the main character(s) is a crucial part of every novel. Over the years, I’ve learned that the setting is one of the things that can make me really excited about a particular work-in-progress.

When I was working on my YA novel THE DAY BEFORE, for example, I was stressed out about an editor leaving and how that might affect my career, but when I opened the document, Amber and Cade took me to the beach every day. It was exactly what I needed at the time.

In 2015 my MG novel, MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, was published and the most common question I get about that book is, “How many times have you been to Paris?” And I always feel a little odd when I reply, “None.” I know that surprises people, and I do understand. But maybe it will be comforting to some of you to learn that it is possible to write about a place you’ve never actually visited. As an aside, I’ve had readers who have visited Paris themselves tell me it took them right back to their trip to the City of Light, which is a lovely compliment to receive.

Many authors take pride in their research trips so they can ensure they get everything right. But sometimes, it’s just not possible due to time and/or money restraints. And personally, I don’t believe you should avoid a setting simply because you can’t get yourself there. Yes, it’s going to require a lot of effort and research on your part, but it’s pretty fun, if you ask me.

So here are six tips to help you research your setting when you can’t visit in person.

1) Get a good guidebook, if one’s available, one with an excellent map. When I was writing the Paris book, I mapped out what arrondissement my character was staying in and then I figured out what made sense every day in terms of her destinations around the city. It’s a bit like travel planning for ourselves, but we’re doing it for our character(s) instead.

2) Reading non-fiction books about the place is obvious, so my next tip is to try to find fictional stories set there as well. For example, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins was a great one for me to read to get in the Paris state of mind. Social media can be a great resource for this kind of thing – don’t be afraid to ask if you are looking for good books set in a particular place. And don’t forget to check various age levels. Like, you might find something helpful in a picture book, you just never know.

3) If it’s a popular travel destination, find some good travel blogs and bookmark them. Travel blogs are great because they usually include pictures, and I find visuals incredibly helpful. In May, a companion to MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS came out called SEALED WITH A SECRET, and it takes place in London. (No, I haven’t been to London either. Are you feeling sorry for me yet?) A blog that I visited frequently while writing that book was www.aladyinlondon.com. There’s even a search engine on her site so if I wanted to check to see if she’d written about something specific, I could easily find out.

4) Google Earth is your best friend. Not sure what a particular street looks like? Put yourself on the map via Google Earth and see for yourself. I wanted to describe Île Saint-Louis one of the two small islands in the Seine, in detail, and Google Earth allowed me to see the window fronts of stores. So wonderful!

5) Talk to people who have lived in the place you’re writing about if at all possible. Pick their brains about little things you may not be able to find anywhere else. Try to learn unique tidbits you can include in your book that will punch the setting up a notch. Ask them questions like, “Can you name a unique spot that may not be on everyone’s radar?” and “What restaurant do the locals love to frequent?” In one of my YA novels, I included a little roadside hamburger joint that has some of the best and biggest soft serve ice cream cones I’ve ever had in my life. I had two different readers email me specifically because they wanted to tell me they’d been there and they thought it was so neat that I’d included it in the book.

6) Using the city you’re researching, Google phrases like “hidden secrets in…” or “secret spots tourists miss in…” or “unusual things to do in…” This will often give you articles or blog posts about places that aren’t well known. For example, it would have been really easy for me to write about all of the well- known spots in Paris, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to include a few places that not everyone necessarily knows about and that would appeal to kids. For example, I included a chocolate shop, a puppet show, and a darling little boutique.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to know everything about a place in order to write your story. When all was said and done, I probably researched twenty Paris spots very, very well. You might want to make a list of the scenes you’re going to write and what you’ll need to know for those particular scenes. It worked best for me to read books and blog posts to get a general feel about Paris beforehand, and then to research as I went along, for the nitty-gritty stuff. You will have to decide what works best for you. Sometimes research can get in the way of making progress on your story, so it’s perfectly fine to get the bare bones of the story down and then come back and fill in the holes with research details.

And by all means, if you can hop on a plane/train/bus, do it! There is nothing like experiencing the sights, sounds and smells first-hand. And please, send me a postcard, okay?

47 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.1.16 Researching your Setting with Lisa Schroeder

  1. Good Morning Lisa Schroeder!
    I’m sitting here in utter jealously that you are able to write the way you do about setting without actually having BEEN to those places. But, I think …. I hope I get what you are trying to say.
    It’s a bit of a case of “the teacher learns at least as much as the student….maybe more”.
    When I try to write about a place I’ve been or traveled to, it’s kinda hard to sift out details to get down to the essence of the place. I overwrite! So, I guess I’m off to get me some maps.
    I added It’s Raining Cupcakes, Sealed With a Secret and Sprinkles and Secrets to my TW ’16 Book Order Wishlist with one of my vendors. I know my sixth grader girls will go for those covers….and be into your stories….just as I was with I Heart You, You Haunt Me. Thanks for dropping in today. It’s so fun and nice to hear from the authors!

    1. Good morning Linda! Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m a little jealous of your overwriting. Description and details are not always easy for me. One of the reasons I love writing verse at times perhaps. Thanks for ordering the books, I hope the students enjoy them. Happy writing!

  2. Good Morning!
    I think the ideas you posted for researching a setting were very helpful. I am thinking about having my students research a place and start with a short piece.

    Your post also made me think about how many places I have ignored adding to my own writing because it was too much work to research or I had little knowledge of the place. Thanks for giving me new ideas that sound manageable.

    1. Hi Ursula, I’m glad you found it helpful, and I love the idea of having students research a place for a piece of writing. They will have so much fun exploring using Google Earth!

  3. I love the idea of using fictional stories to research setting. This can help create a mindset for the the place and time to where the characters are, or are traveling. I also like the idea of Google Earth. If I were to use this with students, it would be a great way for them to see actual sites within the the city they are researching. Students love Google Earth! Thanks for all these ideas!

  4. Hi, Lisa.

    It’s so good to have you here today. Your tips are so helpful, especially to those of us who write historical fiction. As much as I’d like to, I can’t go back in time to visit a place in order to get the details “just right.” I have to rely on many of the same things that you do for my sources: Guidebooks (a.ka. historical maps, photos, censuses…), novels published during or about the time period, diaries and journals, blogs covering historical events and time periods… You get the picture.

    Thank you so much for these wonderful tips and encouragement. I’ll be sure to send you a postcard if I ever go somewhere distant. 🙂

    1. Hi Wendy, I’m playing around with a historical fiction story right now and it’s so challenging! I’m in awe of those of you who write it. Good to know that many of those tips work for HF as well. Happy writing!

  5. Good Morning!

    I love the tips for using a location that you have never visited. This will be a way to get students interested in new places. A way for them to have a goal of visiting the places someday. Thank you!

    1. I agree, Kathy. These are also great ideas for providing background knowledge to readers. Google Maps is genius!

    2. Good morning Kathy! I have had so many kids write to me and say that reading MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS made them want to visit Paris. So yes, I think you’re absolutely right – researching places and allowing them to write a story about it would definitely form travel dreams, which is such a wonderful thing.

  6. Lisa,
    Thanks for the awesome tips on researching a setting you can’t visit. Great tips and I’m percolating on some ideas of how to incorporate this not only in my writing, but in class too! Thank you!

  7. I like your tips for researching setting. So often with students the difference is in the details. I am visiting my son right now and will use your tips to get to know THIS area better, instead of relying on his knowledge of the place he has lived for a year. Now, off to write.

  8. Hi, Lisa!

    This is an awesome post. With four children (13 years old and younger), a full time job as a teacher, being a school board member, and a coach, there is little time (or money) to travel the world. I will be honest that I use settings that I am familiar with, but I do love the research aspect, so you have inspired me to take a chance and use a setting that I am unfamiliar with. This has been in the back of my mind, but after reading over your tips, I am ready to explore. Thanks.

    Two of my daughters (the third is going into first grade – future reader) LOVE your books. I can’t wait to show them this post. THANK YOU for playing a part in turning them into avid readers.

    Happy writing!

    1. Hi Andy, I hear you on the time/money issue. My two boys are now 19 and 21 and my husband and I are at last talking about traveling abroad for the first time next year. Crossing my fingers! Please tell your daughters I said hi – I’m so glad they’ve enjoyed my books.

  9. I have often wondered if a person can write about if a person can write about a place they have not actually been to in person. Thank you so much for these research ideas, Lisa!

  10. I am so excited to try these tips! I\’ve stuck to places with which I am mostly familiar, which is so limiting. I can\’t wait to explore somewhere new in a new story! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Julie, I’ve also written about places that are familiar to me, of course. And sometimes that is fine, and can be a good thing for a story, I think. But hopefully this shows that if a person has an idea taking place somewhere that isn’t familiar, it shouldn’t be an automatic – oh, I can’t write about that place. Best of luck with your writing!

  11. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I have been thinking about using a setting where I have never visited. Your ideas about using Google Earth. Even though I am starting to map out my book with character and dialogue driving the story, I can’t wait to go back and fill in with details about setting now. Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Sarah, Google Earth is amazing!! Such a great resource. Have fun filling in details. I do that too – I’m not always great about setting details in the first draft. Definitely something I have to work on during revision.

  12. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I have been thinking about using a setting where I have never visited. Your idea about using Google Earth sounds perfect since I am such a visual person. Even though I am starting to map out my book with character and dialogue driving the story, I can’t wait to go back and fill in with details about setting now. Thank you so much!

  13. After reading MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, I’m so surprised to hear that you have never been there (and secretly relieved because a writer’s budget doesn’t necessarily make it easy to afford a lot of travel.) Google Earth for writing is a great idea!

    1. Hi Andrea, I want to go to Paris so badly!!!! I am trying really hard to make it happen next year, but we’ll see. In the meantime, I read lots of books set in Paris, haha. Thank goodness for books that take us to faraway places!!!

  14. Great post, Lisa! Another tip might be to talk with someone who lives there. The setting for my book WHISTLE IN THE DARK is a town that no longer exists. But I was able to get a good sense of the place by talking with a long time local government official of the area. He began the conversation by saying he was very busy, and then he kept talking and talking! He was very generous with his time, and shared lots of stories and information with me. People love to be asked about the places they love!

  15. Thank you, Lisa! Your post was so very helpful, timely, and inspiring. I’ve been doing research on a particular place lately for my WIP and you’ve given me more ( and better) ideas. I’m torn on how specific to make references, though– I can describe and name-drop a restaurant, hotel, scenic point, etc. and understand that readers might enjoy connecting with real places, but also am creating new, fictional ones. How much is too much? What if you misrepresent? One of my settings is in a New England boarding school where I’ve never been. (I also did not experience boarding school myself.) Originally, I was researching one school, but I’m wondering if I should research many and create a composite. What do you think? Thank you again for your time and sound advice! I’ll be looking into your books to share with my students– what fun!

    1. Hi Jen, Yeah, I think when you are writing about a real place, you need to be careful about adding in too many fictional places. I think one or two is probably okay to serve your needs, but if you want to make up a bunch of places, you might be better off setting your story in a fictional town. For example, the town where It’s Raining Cupcakes is set is Willow, Oregon, and it’s not a real place. I wanted a place to have my fictional cupcake shop plus a few other fictional places that come into play. I also wanted a town that felt small and friendly, where kids ride their bikes around to get places, etc. I decided it was easier to just make up a place. Sarah Dessen creates fictional places for most (maybe even all) of her books. Lakeview is inspired by Chapel Hill, but it gives her the freedom to add in fictional places.

      As for boarding schools, I’d suggest reading as many books as you can that take place at boarding schools to try and get that experience down. If it were me, I would probably research many and create a composite and make up a place. That way you won’t be criticized for not getting a particular one right. I think that’s what John Green did in Looking for Alaska, right? It’s not a real place if I’m remembering correctly. Hope that helps – good luck and happy writing!

  16. Thanks, Lisa! I am going to put My Secret Guide to Paris on my TBR list! I have had the chance to go to paris twice – 20 years ago and again 10 years ago. I guess it’s time to update the old passport since each time I go it’s a mad rush to do so!

    1. Hi Lisa – thank you, hope you enjoy it! How wonderful you’ve been to Paris twice. I’m hoping to finally go next year. Fingers crossed we can make it work.

  17. I love these tips – thank you so much! This is a post I will be saving. For those who write historical fiction, depending on the era and place, newspapers.com might be a helpful resource as well.

    1. Hi Carolyn, thanks so much, glad you found it helpful. I am going to try newspapers.com for sure as I’m playing around with a historical story now!

  18. Lisa, thanks for suggesting strategies for researching setting. In the MG book I’m writing I have been to the country that it is set in but it was many, many years ago. I’ve tried some of your tips but it was in a haphazard fashion. Can’t wait to pursue the research in the methodical way you suggest! ThankS again Lisa, this was very helpful.

  19. I love the idea of using a guidebook! Such a simple suggestion, but one I had never considered before. I’ve started collecting maps and newspapers and ticket stubs when I travel. Anything that can give me the local flavor of a place. As we drove around Pegeon Forge recently, I took notes on my cell phone of street names and restaurants and tourist attractions. Anything really that might make for an interesting detail in a story!

  20. Thank you – setting is VERY important to the YA coming-of-age novel I am currently working on. It takes place at a campground that I spent many summers going to. It is nostalgic while writing it and I hope to portray just how much this place means to the ptotagonist

  21. Thank you, Lisa! I particularly love your suggestion to google the best kept secrets. It’s to easy to fall into the cliche details. This post is very helpful. Thanks!

  22. Question to anyone – the setting I’m using is a real place…should I make it known? My instinct tells me to keep it anonymous so it could be more relatable, but not sure. For example – a walk to the pier or a walk to Surfside pier? Any suggestions are welcome