Research to Develop Your Characters and Settings© Vicki McCollum
Get to know your character through his or her possessions. Try this exercise: Describe a character’s living space using the five senses. What’s on the walls, under the bed, in the closet? Imagine your character’s room and "brainstorm" a quick but specific list of everything in the room. Don’t limit yourself. Next, free write about one or more items in the room. (Writing Fiction, Burroway, and Discovering the Writer Within, Ballenger)
Was your free writing vivid and specific or was it vague and general? It’s okay to write in vague generalities when you first describe your character’s environment. Get it all down on paper, and then fill in missing detail later.
You may discover that research will help to fill in those blanks with vivid and concrete details about your character’s setting. Do internet searches or go to the library to find information on the time period and location of your story. Or, look items up on E-bay. How are they described?
Find photographs of items and make copies to post on a bulletin board or poster. Hang it near your desk, or file it in a folder to keep for reference. Imagine your character interacting with the items. What have you learned about your character? This information will help you get to know your characters, and it will help to develop deeper characters and add richer layers to your plot.
You may not use all of the information, but a few specific descriptions bring your readers into your story. Your writing will touch their memories, causing them to fill in the gaps with their own experiences as they read.
Through research and free-writing, you may also discover the beginnings of what might be another character, story, or even a non-fiction essay.
I used this exercise to add concrete detail from information I found while researching everyday items in use in Missouri in the early 1800s, the time period of my novel. I found a picture of a rushlight, or poor man's candle, which held grease-soaked rush, a grass-like marsh plant, or candles. (Illinois State Museum Online).
I used the rushlight description to set the mood and describe the setting in a scene with my character.
A log fire in the double hearth lit the cavernous room, that and Cymbee’s rushlight on the scarred cherry table beside the bed. Cymbee replaced the tallow candle with her own twined rushes thickly coated with buffalo grease. Animal fat permeated the air as it burned, casting a golden glow into the murky recesses of the room. The rancid stench wrestled for dominance over the scent of blood and fear.
Try this exercise yourself. See where it takes you in your writing!
Resources for Writing