Sunday, 13 June 2010

Researching A Setting-Specific Story

One of the great lessons I’ve learned while living in Ireland has been the importance of research when writing a setting-specific story. While most people won’t have the opportunities I have by living in another country, it doesn’t mean stories can’t have a rich setting. Here are the top five things every writer should make sure to think about when writing a setting-specific story. Forgive me if I use Ireland a lot here. I’m a bit biased!

Location – It doesn’t matter if a story is historical or contemporary, it has to have a setting. Without a location, the story won’t have legs to stand on. One doesn’t have to go into huge detail about where the story is set either, as we already heave preset ideas in our heads thanks to Hollywood. Suggest Ireland and one thinks of patchwork hillsides and forty shades of green. Say Scotland and automatically we think of men in kilts. Japan and we think of cherry trees and Geisha. Little things sprinkled throughout a story enhance the setting without making the setting the story.

We already know my story, A Piece of My Heart, is set in Ireland. But by adding in some little things, such as a pub, a stone circle, some sheep, and a flat cap, readers are pulled into the story through enhancing the location.

The sun was high in the sky when Mick and Molly crossed the hillside with his flock. Molly circled the flock to keep them together, keeping pace with his rambling stroll. It was a beautiful day and he was enjoying it. The days were chilly and short as Christmas time was approaching, but today was idyllic. And he was a man very happy in himself.

Once the sheep had passed through the gates onto his land, he began to relax. He’d never walked a flock between the farms before, but with Molly’s help the job had been an easy one. Truth, she did most of the work. He just opened and closed the gates and kept the dog company on the walk.

After he’d settled the sheep into the near pasture, he and Molly headed to a small rocky rise to rest. He was beat—after being up most of the night listening to Kate tell more of his father’s stories, and the task of moving the flock—and fancied himself a short break. He thought Molly could use one too, but by the looks of her, she was ready and primed to leap into action should even one of her flock wander off without her permission.

History – History isn’t just about dates, times, and places. It can be defined as experience, background and things that happen to make us who we are, or what a place has become over time. Everything and everyone has history. Ireland’s history, while respectively a tiny country, is steeped in history, from the earliest known peoples often referred to as Celts, to the Viking raiders who settled here, the Norman invasion, British suppression, Religious oppression, the War of Independence, the Irish Free State, and peace with Northern Ireland. And every person in Ireland is part of that history.

In A Piece of My Heart, Mick’s father told Kate stories from his family so she could pass along the Spillane family history to Mick. Some of those stories revolved around Ireland’s history, including traditional matchmaking. The quick mention of the matchmaking festival, along with the stone circle, brief descriptions of pubs and street scenes fleshes out not just the setting, but also the history of place and people.

“Did you know your parents met at the Lisdoonvarna Festival?” Kate hoped to lighten the mood. “I’ll bet there are dozens of things about your parents you don’t know. Now that we’re talking to each other again, I want to tell you everything I can.” Her diary of stories would be a gift to him later.

There was no hiding the surprise in his voice. “You mean the Matchmaker’s Festival?”

"The very one.”

“I’ll be.” He chuckled lightly.

“Because Donal spent so much time on the farm there was little time for courting. Your grandda took him down to Clare for the month-long festival.” Kate snickered, remembering the story Donal had told her. “He told me he had just registered with the matchmaker and as he was leaving the pub, Mary walked in with her father to register. It was love at first sight and they were inseparable for the whole festival.

“They very nearly didn’t get married, you know. Mary’s father didn’t have a big enough dowry to satisfy your grandda.”

“How did they get around that?”

Kate grinned. “Donal told their fathers he’d slept with Mary.”

“I bet that went over well,” he exclaimed with as much sarcasm as was meant by the statement itself. “Mum must have been mortified.”

“It was your mum’s idea. Donal claimed she was still a virgin on their wedding night. It had all been a ploy, you see.”

Culture and Tradition – Culture can be defined as the society in which we live, its social acceptabilities and societal attitudes. The culture in Ireland today is very similar to the American culture, but is still vastly different. Part of Ireland’s culture is its religion—going to church every Sunday, to the priest for confession, and crossing ones self every time one passes a church or graveyard. While Ireland is quite modern today, it’s a fact that divorce was legalized in 1995, and until the early 1990s, condoms were only available by prescription! They were illegal until 1978.

In A Piece of My Heart, Kate’s religious beliefs tangle with womanly desires. While Mick was brought up the same as Kate, many years of Dublin’s influence has changed his perspective. Women are freer in the big city than in the country, so he struggles between manly lusts and respecting Kate for her morals taught by cultural teachings.

Traditions are practices we’ve inherited through our family and/or culture/society. How many things in our own lives do we consider traditions...things we do a certain way because “it’s tradition”? What are the social values of our communities, family expectations, traditions of our heritage... What are things we take for granted every day that are different to someone else?

“Kate, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. While I’m glad you waited through your teen years to sleep with someone, I do recognize the fact that you’ve grown up. You’re quite a woman, and one of her own mind.” She reached up and cupped Kate’s face in her hand and smiled. “You’ll know when it’s right. I’ve told you that before. But don’t be thinkin’ it will be the wedding night. It’s not always.”

Kate looked into her mother’s eyes and realization hit her. Her parents had had s-e-x before marriage. Her mouth dropped open into an O of surprise, her eyes snapping wide.

“Mam! You and Da—you two—” She couldn’t finish her sentence when her mother nodded and continued laughing.

“That surprises you? I’m a woman, too, you know.” Her mother blushed at her confession.

“But, Mam—”

“But, what? I had to test him out. Make sure he was worth spending the rest of my life with.” She said this matter-of-factly. Kate knew her mother was having trouble keeping a straight face. Before they knew it, they were laughing together.

“Well,” said Kate between giggles, “I guess we know the consensus, don’t we.”

“Aye, we do. Never mind the fact that we had to get married rather quickly afterwards.”

“Did Granddad find out and get out the shotgun?”

Her mother shook her head. “No, pet. It was so your brother could have a last name.” Kate’s mouth dropped open again in astonishment. “Fortunately for everyone involved, I loved your father with all my heart and he loved me the same in return.”
Kate started giggling again at the thought that her brother was the cause of their parents’ hasty marriage.

“What are you laughing at now?”

“Just at all the times I thought Connor was such a bastard. Now you’re telling me he really could have been!”

In A Piece of My Heart, Kate is a traditional Irish woman. She goes to church on Sunday, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she crosses herself when she swears. And she’s shocked when her mother speaks to her of antiquated traditions regarding love and sex. Every tradition and belief Kate was raised with is suddenly called into question.

Her announcement that sex meant something to her shouldn’t have shocked him. She was raised in a traditional Irish family. Sex before marriage was a sin. For all he knew, she had probably rushed right to church to confess what happened today.

He probably should be confessing right alongside her. In a manner of speaking he was. He was telling his tale of woe to a glass of John Jameson at this very moment.

Language – Language is more than just what we speak, it’s also how we speak it. When writing a story set in another place, we must remember the language those people speak, their inflection, slang, how they phrase sentences. Even the differences in words, such as trunk vs. boot, elevator vs. lift, pants vs. trousers, panties vs. knickers, etc can enrich a story.

He grinned. “I always have loved you, even when I was too stupid to admit it. Marry me. Share my life, my love, my soul. Everything I am or have is yours. Just as it always has been. Tá tú grá mo chroí. Tá mé chomh mór sin i ngrá leat,” he whispered in Irish. His words of love came between kisses. “You are the love of my heart. I love you so much,” he’d told her.

Dialects and accents are also part of regional language. Even slang will enrich a story. In A Piece of My Heart, Gobnait is an excellent example. She comes from the north innercity of Dublin where accents are so thick they’re almost another language.

Part of Ireland’s charm is in her language. Just as Mick and Kate share some intimate words in the Irish language (with English translation), so we also get the pleasure of Gobnait’s special accent. While we’d never want to write a whole book where the lead character has a hard accent to follow, they can make incredible secondary characters.

“I’m only great. Is A1 I’yam.” Mick grimaced at her north inner city accent. He thought he’d gotten used to it, but a few days back in the west and he now found it grating. “When did yous get in?”

“A bit ago,” he replied, staring at the sitting room window. The sun had gone down. The darkened window reflected the apartment back at him and aloneness settled on him with the sight.

“Mustn’ta bin too long ago. I bin drivin’ by awl day and only jes saw da car. I’ll be righ’ up, yeah?” Before Mick could tell her not to bother she’d disconnected her mobile phone and left him standing with the handset in his hand beeping with the disconnect tone.

People – People watching is tantamount to writing a great story. One of the greatest assets any writer can have is observation. Go to malls, busy downtown streets, festivals...anywhere where people gather in large groups. Watch their body movements, how they interact with others, inflections, listen to accents and speech patterns, watch everything about them, and use what you’ve learned to create memorable characters.

So the next time you’re considering writing a story with a specific setting, be it Ireland or in your own hometown, remember that research is the key to a great story. Make your story fun and make it come alive by researching everything that makes up your chosen setting.

I love to hear from readers, so please, drop me an email and let me know how you research your own setting-specific story.



  1. Good post, Kemberlee. Just one correction. Ellora's Cave was unsuccessful in trying to trademark the word Romantica. Romantica by itself is not trademarked, although Ellora's Cave heavily promoted it as being originally theirs.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Vanessa. I'll amend the post. And thansk for your comments!