The best novels transport readers to a vivid place and time. The setting becomes a character in its own right. This was especially challenging in writing Under a Turquoise Sky, better known by one reader as “the Charlotte to Shiprock romance-a-thon.”
Somewhere beyond the towering mesas and sandstone cliffs, Aaron pulled onto a secondary road, more ruts than pavement. Kailyn scrabbled for the ceiling to steady herself. Her teeth rattled.But suppose your story is set in a place you’ve never been? Short of time travel, you may never be able to personally experience an 1864 Civil War battlefield or dystopian sci-fi adventure. Barring culture hopping, you may never know what it’s really like to hobnob with the rich and famous at Cape Cod. Finances, children and careers can make research trips difficult.
Kailyn pointed at the striations of purple, red, orange and pink that banded the buttes. “It’s beautiful here.” Mountains stretched in every direction. A cluster of trees, wreathed in the golden yellow of late September, ribboned the bosque alongside a desultory riverbed.
“Would you look at the colonial Spanish architecture?” Her lips parted. “The pink terra cotta tiles.” Kailyn pivoted in the middle of the street. “Orange-red adobe walls.” She pointed at a turquoise-painted door.
“Like the sky,” Aaron explained. “Very Santa Fe. Very Southwest. Land of Enchantment.”
She grinned. “I’m starting to be enchanted.”
Yeah, him, too.What’s a writer to do? As a “destination writer”, readers expect to be carried away to a different time or place in my novels. And creating unique, captivating settings is half the fun for me. Sometimes my stories are located in actual settings. Or, I’ll use a real life setting as a model for the fictional storyworld I’m creating. But either way, here’s what I do—
I. Target Your Research
A. Virtual Visits
1. City websites
2. Travel articles/blogs
3. “Fly” to a real life geographic model with Google Earth
4. Photo-sharing sites like Pinterest and Google Images
B. Have Book . . . Will Travel—Interlibrary loan is a researcher’s best friend.
1. Guidebooks and maps—Here’s a fun fact I incorporated—
“Only thing to know about New Mexico is to be able to answer the
question, ‘Green or red’.”
“Chile. Do you want green or red chili peppers in your food?”
Kailyn frowned at Aaron. “In your breakfast?”
“In every meal, dzani. Breakfast, noon, and night.”
2. Travelogues, diaries, biographies and fiction written during the same time period to capture the essence of fashion, food and social mores. Essential in writing Beneath A Navajo Moon.
II. Consult Local Experts— There is no substitute for local knowledge.
1. Small history museums or historical societies are often eager to find someone interested in their topic.
2. Make your initial research count before contacting “live” people. Don’t waste their time.
3. Become the expert. If you’re writing a Scottish medieval, take a Highland dance class. Take part in Living History weekends, Civil War reenactments or Pioneer Days. For Under a Turquoise Sky, I attended the Writers Police Academy for insight into law enforcement.
III. Employ Your Imagination—Take what you know and transfer that to the page.
1. Can’t afford to travel to Hawaii? As in Aloha Rose, you can capture what it’s like to be at any beach—from Santa Monica to the Outer Banks to the Caribbean.
2. Ever move to a new school, neighborhood, city or church? Your emotions will parallel those of a dystopian character venturing into the unknown or a pioneer setting off across the American frontier.
IV. Utilize All Five Senses— Sensory details, even small ones, can bring setting to life. But like adding spices, a little goes a long way. Visual is easiest.
1. Character or location specific fragrance? Smell is the most elusive and yet evocative sense for readers. As for my high-maintenance, on the run Southern belle—
“Does hiding from the Mexican Mafia mean anything to you, Kailyn?”
She responded by wrapping her arms around Aaron’s shoulders. The familiar magnolia scent caused his senses—and his good sense—to reel.2. Taste
“Why do you have to make everything so difficult, Kailyn?”
Kailyn grabbed Taco’s leash. “I don’t know who stomped all over your tortilla, but I can’t talk to you when you act this way.”3. Auditory
For Rez cadence of speech, I watched episodes of Navajo Cops. And studied cultural nuances.
Unlike Latinos, the Diné weren’t big on terms of endearments. And the way Aaron said it, is what it was. That and the look in his eyes.
Kailyn brandished the skillet. “When’re you going to learn life is full of cacti.”
Aaron backed off a step.
“And you make the choice to sit on it or not.”
Make it a game to see how many of the senses you can sprinkle into each scene.
In Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell reminds writers that a great setting can offer conflict of its own and influence story outcome. Our job is to know characters inside and out. Therefore, we must know our settings, too.
Love at first sight between Aaron and Kailyn in Under a Turquoise Sky? Uh . . . not so much.
Kailyn lifted her chin. “Please don’t hurry back on my account.”
Aaron sauntered to the door. “Sure thing, ’cause it’s always such a blast being with you. As much fun being roasted over a bonfire. Slowly.”
But more than bullets will fly between these two. And though I’m a destination writer, the joy is definitely in the journey.
Which storyworlds from films or books are most memorable to you? Why?
Leave a comment to be entered into a giveaway of Under a Turquoise Sky. Two winners will be chosen.
Blending Southern and Native American fiction, Lisa Carter writes “Sweet Tea with a Slice of Murder”. Her latest release is Under a Turquoise Sky. She is the author of two previous romantic suspense novels, Carolina Reckoning and Beneath A Navajo Moon; and Aloha Rose, a contemporary romance in the Quilts of Love series. She and her family make their home in North Carolina. When she isn't writing, Lisa enjoys teaching writing workshops and researching her next exotic adventure. She has strong opinions on barbecue and ACC basketball. Connect with Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
Under A Turquoise Sky
Secrets and danger deep in the canyons and arroyos of the Navajo Nation.
When Aaron Matthews is assigned to protect the only witness to a drug cartel execution, he hides Kailyn Eudailey in the safest place he knows—the vast, untamed wilderness of the Navajo Nation.
On the run from Charlotte to Shiprock, sparks fly between a no-nonsense federal agent and a high-maintenance Southern belle who brings her frou-frou pooch along for company. “That dog's coyote food,” Aaron warns Kailyn.
He warns her about a lot of things that could get the both of them killed if she doesn’t follow WITSEC protocol to the letter. Problem is—nobody warned him to guard his heart.
Now Aaron’s broken past and Kailyn’s explosive present are on a fast-paced, collision course in this brilliant plot-twisting suspense about murder and mercy, great loss and greater love under a turquoise sky.
DiAnn Mills, author of Firewall—“Only lightning can strike faster than the action in this thrilling romantic suspense.”