Location, Location, Location: Researching Place - Part 3

by Suzanne Lieurance

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you need to get the facts correct when it comes to the location where your story or article will take place.

In this month’s post about location (read Part 1 and Part 2 of this post for more tips about researching location), you’ll learn how to travel to locations in the past and how to capture the essence of a specific location even if you have never been there.

Travel the Past

Writers can’t actually travel back in time to see what a location was like long ago.

Or can they?

Never underestimate the power of museums.

When Suzanne Hilton was researching her book The Way It was—1876, she found a way to see how the World’s Fair in Philadelphia would have looked that year.

“At the Franklin Institute, there was a perfect scale model of the entire World’s Fair of 1876. By scrunching down and looking through the gate, I could see the layout as a person entering the fair would,” Hilton explains.

“Museums, libraries, and archives are treasure houses of old newspapers, diaries, and photos,” said Jeri Chase Ferris, who writes biographies and historical fiction. “I’d say every one of these was an absolute necessity when researching the locations where my subjects have lives.”

When writing about a specific place in an earlier time in history, many writers find it helpful to use diaries from that period.

Many historical societies have a variety of diaries, according to date.

Hilton suggests, “The University of Georgia put out a book called American Diaries in Manuscript, 1580-1954, A Descriptive Bibliography. It’s an index to diaries not published, their dates, and where I the United States they can be found. I’m not sure you can still buy one, but it’s a real find.”

When Debra McArthur was researching her book about the Dust Bowl, she took an unusual approach for obtaining primary sources.

McArthur was a college instructor in the Midwest at the time, so she figured there were people around who had firsthand memories of the Dust Bowl or knew someone else who did.

To find them, McArthur created a flyer describing her project and asking for help.

She placed the flyer in the college library and other high traffic areas throughout the campus when the college was having its alumni weekend.

Author Marty Crisp is another writer who likes to visit the location if at all possible.

“In the case of a book I wrote that is set in England in 1599, I couldn’t of course find 1599, but in England, I came pretty close!” she says. “I went to old manor houses and palaces searching for the perfect setting, and when I found it, it was practically a ruin. It was a manor house built in the 1580s and stripped down to its walls, but it was so much easier to furnish with imagination than to strip out all the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s things in other old houses that were in better repair.”

Capture the Essence

Author Wendie Old has been lucky enough to live within driving distance of most of the locations where her subjects lived and worked.

“I visit, take pictures talk to people there, take the tours and listen to the patter of the guides. Just the way things are said can be different, special, catchy,” she says.

“Although it’s not possible sometimes to visit the sites I write about, I certainly try,” says Nancy Ferrell, who has lived in Alaska. “There’s nothing like actually being there and, once there, having some exciting, hands-on experiences that help me transfer that excitement to my readers.”

When Ferrell wrote The U.S. Coast Guard, she arranged through the rear admiral to fly in a search-and-rescue helicopter in Sitka, Alaska, where she could take photographs from the aircraft.

Even popular fiction series like Sweet Valley or Baby-Sitter’s Club are set in definite locations.

Writers have to know what the neighborhood is like where these characters live, what the town looks like, and so on—they have to create fictional towns that have the feel of real towns.

Sarah Verney has written for several series.

“There’s usually a series bible that describes the characters’ personalities, physical descriptions, and even their houses and the towns they live in,” says Verney.

For the Silver Blades and Sweet Valley stories she wrote, Verney found that the town descriptions included locations like “favorite stores, the pizza parlor, ice cream shop, the ice rink, the school, of course, and any place else the characters might hang out.”

For her book Gratefully Yours, about a girl who rode an orphan train from New York to Nebraska in 1923, Buchanan thoroughly researched Nebraska, but as the deadline for completing the manuscript neared, she began to feel uneasy.

“It would be immediately apparent to anyone who lived in Nebraska that I was a fraud, I was sure. I panicked,” she says.

She told her husband she had to go to Nebraska.

He politely pointed out why she couldn’t go right then, so the book was published without Buchanan ever setting foot in Nebraska.

A week after the book came out, an older woman told Buchanan that she had grown up on a farm in Nebraska.

“I don’t know how you did it,” said the woman, “but you captured it. This is where I grew up.”

“I was thrilled, of course, and flattered, and so relieved,” says Buchanan. “It was important to me to make the story believable, and also as accurate as possible.”

As you’ve learned from this 3-part post, there are all sorts of ways to research location.

Yet, it doesn’t really matter how you conduct your research—just so you convey the reality of the place.

As Hilton says, “I’m an avid researcher because some 10-year-old kid can tell if I’m guessing, and I don’t want that to happen.”

For more writing tips, be sure to visit writebythesea.com and get your free subscription to The Morning Nudge. Once you're a subscriber, you'll also have access to a Private Resource Library for Writers.

Suzanne Lieurance is the author of over 35 published books, a freelance writer, and a writing coach.


Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, thanks for this information on researching location - super-helpful. I hadn't thought of all the resources available to authors who want to (who need to)get their setting right!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Karen,

Yeah, it's pretty amazing all the resources available for researching location, and it's a lot of fun using them!

Terry Whalin said...


What great insight about doing research on your location even if you can't physically make it to the location. Thank you,


genealogylizgauffreau said...

I just found American Diaries in Manuscript, 1580-1954, A Descriptive Bibliography on Internet Archive as available to borrow. Score!

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