Sunday, August 5, 2012

Places and Settings...research for your book

Rock face, taken by Jacqueline Hopkins along Highway 14 in Central Idaho.
I love geography.

I love to study maps.

I love to travel.

I love to take pictures (see photo at right).

You might be asking yourself at this point what do those statements above have to do with places and settings of a book. 

Well, since I love to travel, geography, studying maps and taking pictures go hand in hand with my traveling. I like to study the topography of an area, get to see its natural features, and get to know its characteristics.  Then I take lots of pictures for memory and take lots of notes just in case I want to put the place or setting into one of my books.

For my book Wilderness Heart, it was set along Hwy 14 in Idaho.  Highway 14 goes east of Grangeville, Idaho to Elk City, Idaho.  As a teenager growing up in Lewiston, Idaho we drove Highway 14 to Red River Road, then on to Red River Ranger Station in the winter, where we would grab everything out of the truck and pile it onto sleds to be pulled behind snowmobiles.  We’d ride about 15 miles all the way into Dixie, Idaho where my parents had a cabin.

But along this highway, before the turn off onto Red River Road, there was this foot bridge spanning across the river and I always wondered where it went.  It was wide enough for people and horses to cross it.  I set the opening scene where my heroine meets the hero on the other side of that bridge.  I took lots of pictures of it so I could describe it.

There is a ranch along this route called the Little Ponderosa that I used as the place the heroine grew up.

Elk City, a real town not far from the turn off to Red River Road, is the place I had the hero staying while he scouted the area for timber. Just past Red River Ranger Station, there is a hot springs and a restaurant where I set their first “date” and the hot springs was used for their first love scene. And just before the turn off, there is a small lumber mill (or was at the time I had started writing the book) that I use in my book as the one her finance owns and the one the hero buys from him. The Dixie Bar I used in my book was at the time real; a place I frequented while going to Dixie every winter and then later as I got older I traveled to my parent’s cabin on my own.  I eventually took both of my children there.  The Forest Service Road leaving Dixie takes travelers to Mackay Bar and is one I’ve snowmobiled down.

I know or used to know Highway 14 like that back of my hand, and quite a few of the reviews I received on my book spoke about how real the places were:

“The facts about the Idaho mountains made them come alive in my mind.”  F Murrell

“The dramatic Idaho wilderness is the perfect backdrop, wonderfully portrayed by Jacqueline - I could almost feel the crisp, crunchy snow beneath my feet and feel the cold, fresh and exhilarating air.” Beshon

“I was drawn to this story. Some forty years ago my late father and some of his friends embarked on an elk hunt in this exact area. Dad told the story of how ruggedly beautiful the country is, and the kind of hardships they endured on their hunt (inclement weather, poor choice of footwear - they wore cowboy boots rather than hiking boots). He also told about the colorful outfitter and guide who eventually helped my father bag a bull elk. Jacqueline Hopkins captures all this nicely…”  RW Bennett

“Jacqueline Hopkins knows the world where she's placed her characters. Her descriptions of the smells of coffee, forests and horses in the cold dawns of Nez Perce National Forest are crisp and believable; I was transported to a world I knew little about until I read this book”.  Conchie Fernandez

“Vivid descriptions give the reader a sense of being right there.”  Sherrie Mitchell

My murder mystery will be set in Sitka, and I am about to move away from there, so I need to get as much info as I can about the area, take lots of pictures and talk to people.  I want my settings to be real places and I want to the reader to be able to picture being there with my descriptions.  I have another book set in Alaska and the only reference I have will be from maps, and pictures of the area when I flew over it in a float plane. 

If, as a writer, you do not have the means to travel or go to other places, write what you know.  Write about where you live.  Make the place you live real to us, the reader.  Know everything there is to know about the town you live; know everything about it to be believable. Take lots of pictures, know how far it is to drive from point A to point B – drive it if necessary because a reader from your town will question it if you get ir wrong; study the area and if necessary, study maps and history about the place.  If you went to another city or state for college, draw on that knowledge and memories. 

Because I was in the military (Navy) from 1981 to 1988, I have lived in Orlando, Florida; Iceland; New London/Groton, Connecticut; Monterey, California; and Idaho Falls, Idaho.  My first husband’s last duty station was Hawaii, so we lived there for two years and it was where my daughter was born. Because my parents loved to travel, as a small child I have been, since birth in Durant, Oklahoma, on a train to the Oregon coast where my father had hitch-hiked to pick cherries; we lived in Sitka, Alaska where my sister was born in 1961, Evergreen, Colorado and Lewiston, Idaho.  While growing up, we traveled back to Oklahoma every four years to visit the relatives and we would stop along the way to visit famous places and national parks.  My parents loved to go camping almost every weekend and to a different place including places in Canada. While I was in the Navy, I have driven across the US and all along the west coast, so I have lot of memories I can pull upon to write about.

If, as a writer, you do not have the memories to pull upon to write about, ask people you know who have been places. For instance, my son was in the Army and he spent a year of his four years in Iraq.  So if I wanted to set a book in Bagdad, I can ask my son who has been there. 

Interview people you know, where have they lived, where have they been?  Taking pictures helps to preserve your memories; to be able to describe a place later in your book.

I like to get lost in the books I read, takes me out of my current reality of life.  If a writer is good with descriptions of a place I can visualize it, I can be there with the writer’s characters experiencing the places and settings they have set their book in.  It I ever get to visit a place I read about, so much the better; it reminds me of that book.  If I never get to visit the place, then the author has given me visions to remember.

So, your turn.  Where have you been, who do you know, what fun ways do you have to write about the places and settings of your book?

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