By Leslie DeVooght
Readers want to be transported and experience your characters’ world. Your setting should elicit an emotional response from your readers. To achieve this kind of intimacy with the place, a writer must visit the place. Setting isn’t just a location.
In our first meeting, my fantastic writing coach Lindsey Bracket said, “you must evoke the island.” This statement completely changed the way I thought about setting and transformed my story. After completing two books and two flash fiction pieces set in the same area, setting has become a character in my stories.
At my first ACFW conference, Cara Putnam said she visited her book’s setting, even though she had once lived there. After writing half of my contemporary romance, Island Love is Elementary, I knew I had to do the same thing. Lucky for me, my novels take place on St. Simons Island, Georgia, so when it came time to research the setting, it meant a trip to the beach. But I lived on the Island for thirty-seven years, so did it warrant a special trip—absolutely, and not just to lounge. I needed to observe the place like I never had before to write about it in a way that would make my readers feel like they were there. I jumped in my car and drove to my hometown as a visitor—camera and journal in hand.
As soon as I saw the Sidney Lanier Bridge, I started taking pictures. The pictures jogged my memory. Before I crossed the causeway to the Island, I had to stop in a parking lot, overlooking the marsh and write lists of the trees, birds, and bodies of water. I stopped at the visitor’s center and loaded up on brochures and street maps.
What should you do on your visit? Focus on your five senses and research your setting with all of them engaged. Have your journal and pen ready to jot down all your observations even if they seem insignificant. Strong writing comes with specific details. Standing under a tree is not nearly as interesting as standing under a sprawling live oak, dripping with Spanish moss.
Take lots of pictures and from different angles. Find out the names of native plants, flowers, trees, birds, and animals. Invest in a naturalist guide to the area. Consider going on a tour. I did this with my children, and although I knew most of the information, it gave me material for future stories. Look for resources at the local library.
Look at people’s clothing because it is a result of the climate and the formality of the area. I recently watched a movie set on a Georgia Island in the summer. The actors wore long pants and jackets that would not be necessary for November in coastal Georgia, much less July. The inaccuracy distracted from the story.
Check out houses and store fronts. I thought someone was going to report a stalker as I leaned out of my car window taking snapshots of beach cottages and porch swings.
Make sure to take time to sit or stroll. Listen for unique sounds. Even palm tree fronds make a specific noise. Close your eyes—inhale deeply. What do you smell? And don’t focus on the obvious like flowers. How does your body react to the scent?
Touch everything you can without being too weird. A description like rough, weathered wood planks or the calming effect of a sea breeze adds dimension and emotion to your scenes.
Go and visit—experience your characters’ world. I promise your writing will never be the same.
Leslie DeVooght sets her stories in Georgia’s Golden Isles, her hometown. Her novel Island Love is Elementary, a 2017 ACFW Genesis semi-finalist, garnered awards at the Florida Christian Writers Conference and Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Leslie loves cheering on her children and dates with her husband, who loves that she researches kissing. Find Leslie at www.lesliedevooght.com, on Facebook at Leslie Kirby DeVooght, and Twitter @lesliedevooght.