Monday, December 20, 2010

Sitting in the Setting - Does It Make a Difference?

by Rachael Phillips

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a pirate cave. Yes, a for-real pirate cave, and not off on some distant island in the Caribbean--though I wouldn't have minded that too much. No, this was an enormous cave in Hardin County, Illinois, just west of the Indiana state line, on the Ohio River. Having researched and settled on this locale for my next Christmas novella, I decided to visit it.

My non-writing friends, upon hearing I was taking a research trip, assumed my publisher had planned and funded this endeavor. Did my resort hotel include a free spa and nightly massages? Again, I wouldn't have minded that too much. Instead, I drove halfway and, having been mugged and hugged and slimed by three sweet grandkids and a dog, spent the night on my daughter's sofa. Eat your heart out, Karen Kingsbury.

The next morning as I drove the last fifty miles or so, the familiar Midwestern cornfields and small towns morphed into the hilly Shawnee National Forest. I pulled into Cave in Rock State Park and hiked to the cave where, during the early 1800s, bloodthirsty pirates often raided flatboats carrying pioneers westward. Some took the more subtle approach and lured weary travelers to a tavern in the cave, then promptly robbed and--ulp!--did away with them.

My story takes place a decade or two after the worst events, but if my plot continues as planned, the cave, long a center of illegal activity, will be involved in my novella. I had read about it and seen it on the Internet, but sitting alone in its echo-y vastness, even on a sunny November morning, I heard voices from its walls I would never have noticed had I stayed home. I climbed the rough, uncaring limestone and swished the dead, broken leaves on its mud floor, smelling its dampness and age. All the while, the Ohio River, an innocent blue on the lovely day, rippled in front of its wide-open mouth.

My story will be better because of that one-day hurry-up trip. Books, magazine and newspaper reports of settings give us solid foundations for good fiction. And while virtual tours of locations are invaluable to us writers, computers cannot touch. They cannot smell--at least, not yet. And they cannot feel the emotions that well up in our squishy stomachs and make us wish our big, strong hubbies had accompanied us. Interviews with area natives can give us human perspectives that written and cyber material cannot. Still, a first-person experience of a setting, if possible, takes the author beyond looking at snapshots and watching videos. She assumes a role in the real-life drama she longs to share with her readers.

How about you? Have you found that visiting a setting--or a similar one--makes a substantial difference in your writing?


  1. I set my novels in Chicago because all I have to do is grab my camera, hop on the train (and possibly the el or a bus), and I'm there. Unfortunately, I still have problems. Right now I'm working on an idea where several scenes would occur in the Federal detention center. I can think of lots of ways to get in if I'm willing to put up with an extended stay, but I'd prefer to make a quick exit. The things we do for our craft!

  2. I think the research is the fun part of writing. It gives me excuses to buy a new book, visit the bookstore and even combine my vacation with the next story setting. I love the learning process of researching the setting. I'm such a fanatic, I even document the temperature and weather on my setting time span.

    Yes, I think sitting on the setting helps. Although some will argue Louis L'Amour was not the best writer, but so many men I know loved his stories because of the setting. Of his own words, L'Amour would tell how he visited his setting before he began his book. An author with over a hundred books can't be wrong.

    Speaking for myself, sometimes our backyard becomes to familiar to see it well. Our little town is filled with lots of evil history, (world's first train robbery, numerous unsolved murgers, bank robberies, etc.) but no one seems interested in our infamous past.

    Thanks for reminding us.

  3. When I ride a horse, bike or walk through an area, I see it differently than I do from the car. I think it's the same with setting. If you go somewhere to write about it, you go slowly and take it all in -- what kind of trees, what kind of soil, what kind of birds, wildlife, did the pioneers here build with round logs or square them off ... stuff like that.

    But instead of backroads and caves, how about planning a novel in a glam location? And be forced to research it? Oh, the humanity ...!

  4. Rachael--am reading your book--RIGHT NOW! Just finished Cynthia's great story.

    Hmmm. Setting becomes a character in my books, and I love the glam ones!


    Merry Christmas!

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  6. Thanks, everybody, for taking time out during this wild, wonderful season to make comments.
    Kathryn, PLEASE don't get thrown into jail. Besides the inconvenience, it won't do much to get you in good with CBA :-)
    Kenny, sounds like you've got great plot fodder just across the street!
    Ann, the glam idea is a good one to prod us rural Midwestern types. My friend and fellow novella writer Becky Melby from Wisconsin does a great job in this arena.
    Patti, maybe I should go live in Normal, IL, for a while. It might rub off!

    Christmas blessings to you all!