Okay, fellow writers, I have a question.
How do you handle real-life settings with which you're not familiar? I've been reading (dangerous, I know), and many of the books on writing all agree that having a strong setting will add richness and depth to your story.
On the surface, I totally agree. I am a big fan of good world-building when it comes to sci fi and fantasy, for instance. I also love books in which I get a real feel for the setting, the stench of a city's underbelly or the stark beauty of the cityscape at night, the fragrant smells of farmland, etc. I can usually tell when an author is writing about a setting they've lived in or experienced first hand.
The few times I've used setting to good effect, it's been when I was familiar with the locale. In my long-abandoned zombie novel, I was able to follow the characters from street to street and describe in very accurate detail not only what they were seeing, but the kind of weather they were experiencing, the colour of the buildings, etc. In another story, The Built in a Day Job
, to be precise, I used my recent trip to Rome in the springtime to evoke all the sights and sounds and smells of the city that were vital to what I was trying to accomplish in my story.
So what am I supposed to do when I need to set my story in one or more places with which I'm not at all familiar? Somewhere I've never been? I can give overall impressions of a place based on research, but I have no idea how to get the level of detail I would like to put into a story. Is there really a shop on that street corner in Memphis? Is that a one-way street? What bus routes should my characters be taking in Calgary? Is there even reliable public transit? What's the weather like in Colorado in March? What did Cambridge smell like in summer in the late 1800s?
So how do you handle it when you have to write in an unfamiliar setting? Any advice?