Thursday, January 14, 2010

Homework, Fieldwork and the Fun of Setting Research - LeAnne Hardy

On Monday Cathy wrote about her novel manuscript set in Viet Nam.  One of the fun parts of writing international fiction is the travel. My first two books were set in places I knew well because I had lived there. When I wrote Glastonbury Tor (part historical fiction, part fantasy of the Holy Grail) I had lived in England, but not in the sixteenth century and not in Somerset where Glastonbury Abbey was located. I needed a visit to soak up the details that would create the atmosphere I wanted. Here are some things I learned about researching my setting.

Do your homework.
The public library provided me with more than thirty books about medieval and Elizabethan life in England, the monasteries, and the Dissolution under King Henry VIII. I was surprised at how many books I found specifically about the history and geography of Glastonbury. (Libraries are the best thing about living in a developed country—that and fast internet.) Descriptions stimulated my imagination and filled my mind with elements for my story. Besides all the notes on facts and plot ideas, I soon had a list of places I wanted to see in person.

Keep a journal. 
This is not only what we writers to do, it is also a good way to convince the IRS that your travel was a business expense. I found that I alternated scrawls of information with pages of dialog and description as they came together in my head at the site. It didn’t hurt that my hosts loaned me a bicycle to take the canal path into town through a nature reserve. The bird hide with a view of the Tor (Celtic for ‘hill’) was a perfect place to gather my thoughts and think about what my characters would do with what I had seen that day. One evening I came upon the starlings roosting in the reeds of one of the bogs that still dot the Vale of Avalon. That experience became a key romantic scene in the book. Fog creeping out of the bog across the bike path found its way into a darker scene. The day I climbed the Tor in the rain, I rushed home to the farmhouse where I was staying and drafted the scene when Colin climbs the Tor, visiting the Stations of the Cross in an effort to purge his soul. Of course, it is raining in that scene.

Use a digital camera to take notes. 
After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. The photograph of the monastery wall edging High Street reminds me of its height and the crenulations along the top. I take pictures of signs  to remind me of where the next pictures were taken or to be studied for information later (being careful not to position the flash so it produces a glare that makes the sign unreadable.) One of my numerous shots of the photogenic Tor became the basis for the book’s cover design.

Buy a geological survey map of the area. .
These are sold in shops for hikers. Mine not only kept me from getting lost in my rambles, but I also spread it on the floor of my study back home to plan the approach of King Henry’s men and Colin’s route in search of the stolen Grail.

Local people are great resources
When I visited Glastonbury, I stayed with a family I found by contacting a local church and explaining who I was and what I wanted to do. I offered to pay for hospitality--something that was hard to convince my new friends to accept in the end. They filled my ears with local data and later checked my dialog for authenticity. When I went to Wales to research a sequel (my current work-in-progress) I took advantage of the local Rambler’s Associations. These groups organize country walks. When my fellow walkers found out why I was there, they were eager to suggest other locations I should visit. One hike proved to be shorter than expected and half the group accompanied me to a near-by waterfall they thought I should see. I would never have found the location on my own, but it was the perfect inspiration for several key scenes.

What books have you read whose setting most interested you? Is there a dream setting you would like to visit?

LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents, sipped cream tea in Oxfordshire, eaten stewed goat at a Mozambican wedding, slid down rocks in a Mato Grosso river and shopped at Mall of America. Her books for young people come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will impact lives. Visit her at


  1. That was really inspiring, Leanne! Some great tips and photos :)

  2. Hi Leanne,

    I bought a copy of Glastonbury Tor a couple of weeks ago. I can't wait to read it now that I've read about your research.

    Thank you for a fascinating blog.

  3. Well! Now I want to visit Glastonbury and it's a continent and an ocean away:) Closer to home, I found the inspiration for my historicals by visiting Historic Fort Steele in B.C. The town is a restoration of a thriving gold rush town circa 1880 and an endless source of information.

  4. I've started journaling again this year. I need to slow things down a bit and capture what's going on around me, be aware of my surroundings and all. There are literally new stories and concepts taking place all around us as we go through our day.

    Stephen Tremp

  5. That's great that you were able to visit the place you wrote about! I can imagine in an ideal world, all authors would love to be able to do their research in person! But if we can't, at least we have the Internet!

  6. Leeanne, thanks for sharing your 'in-person' research tips with us :-)

  7. Alice, I'm sure Fort Steele is a great inspiration. There is a French fur trapper fort and Indian village near us here in Wisconsin, and I have found myself wondering if there isn't a story in my future set there. Catherine, save frequent flyer miles! They are a big help, and I agree, the internet is a big help. I use Google Maps in the satellite version.

  8. As I look back over the years since our first trip overseas in 1997 there are many places we've been to I'd love to set a story in. As much as we can read and research places I have to confess a horror of 'getting it wrong.' No one can really describe the 'feeling' of a foreign country to our own. The smells, the expressions on faces in that Nairobi slum, those long dusty roads, the smoke mingled with fog over that Zambian north from those fires. The sheer exuberance as Africans worship. Oh dear, perhaps one day there will be a book set there - but not unless I finish writing this current one!