Somehow, my topic suggestions were chosen twice this month. This time, the question I posed was “How do you stay inspired to write a story set in a time and/or place that’s totally different from where you are?”
I don’t remember suggesting this, but I suppose I was bemoaning the fact that sometimes the difficulty in finding resources for a specific place and time can lead to endless research, and that tends to get in the way of storytelling. I would imagine that spending one’s writing time in a make-believe world can become as tiring as living vicariously in the past, but I’ve never been inspired to write in that genre. I’m sure that people who do write these books have other strategies for staying motivated, but for me the biggest roadblock is not knowing how things were done in a particular place at a specific time.
Most of my books are set in the past, during time periods before my grandparents were born, and many are set outside the United States. Most take place in locations I’ve lived in or visited, but I have to refer to pictures and descriptions from articles and journals to see what they were like two hundred years ago.
It can be a bit daunting, wading through endless documents just to find a single bit of specific information. In the early days, I’d visit the library and spend hours poring through books larger than any I’d used in college. Now, of course, most of this stuff is online and I can search without leaving my home. But it is still a challenge when I’m looking for something specific. Here are some questions that caused me to spend endless hours of poring through books, both print and online:
- What kinds of foods would be served at a London dinner party in 1812?
- What did a rural Japanese kitchen look like in 1870?
- How were currency exchanges (English pounds to French francs) handled during the mid-19th century? Would this have been difficult due to political tensions between the two countries?
Documentaries: While researching the first question, I discovered a series of videos by Lucy Worsley. They weren’t specifically about my topic, but did cover the correct time period. So I watched. And then I watched another. They were so interesting, I decided to switch gears and write about some of the things in her videos. And when I did that, I suddenly found a video clip that DID deal with dinner parties, including what was on the menus.
Social media sites can be a huge waste of time. But when a deadline isn’t looming, sometimes it can be a great way to stay in the mood. For example, when I watched documentaries on YouTube about the kings and queens of 19th century England, I was at least immersed in the atmosphere and mindset of the era, and eventually I was able to continue and complete the story. Pinterest is another site where I’ve found pictures (including a table setting for a regency era dinner party!) as well as websites leading me to blogs and other resources.
Asking the experts: I’ve discovered that there are times when it’s better to go to the experts. I’ve done this in a few ways.
Special interest groups: I joined a few author groups targeting specific genres. One is a group called Regency Fiction Writers, which includes several authors who have already immersed themselves in research and offer online workshops about all sorts of topics. Last year, I participated in one that covered the legal system in England during the 1800s. This particular class was done through email, where the instructor posted a lesson, and then we could reply with questions relating to authors’ current writing projects, which were always answered promptly. The great thing about this was that I could access the “class” whenever it was convenient to me. The downside was that there were usually so many specific questions and responses that my inbox was usually pretty full at the end of the day. Still, I was amazed how much practical information was shared. I tried to save the lessons and pertinent additional information in an email folder. Another workshop, one on Downstairs Life (a look at life of those in the servant class) was done via Zoom, primarily because the presenter had so many visual aids for us. Like the email class, participants had many questions which were answered thoroughly. Classes like this help keep me focused on my projects.
Cold Contacts: My very first Christmas romance featured an ice sculptor. Since I knew next to nothing about ice sculpting, I put out a request to my writing group for someone with any knowledge or experience, and almost immediately one of our members responded with the email for Randy Finch, who not only creates marvelous sculptures, he’s featured on a Food Network show called Ice Brigade. When I emailed Randy, he responded right away with an invitation to call him with any questions. I took a few days to think about my plot and compile a list before I took the plunge to call, and he answered my questions, gave me the title of a great resource book, AND he sent me a CD with several episodes of his show so that I could actually see how process of creating ice sculptures. With these responses, I completed the book just before the deadline.
When I wrote Three French Inns, I discovered that writing about 19th century France, especially in rural areas, was difficult due to limited historical resources. I was discouraged until I reached out to a French history professor at the university where I teach. Dr. Smithers was kind enough to respond to my many questions. Each time I received his thoughtful responses, I was motivated to continue writing the story, and was able to complete the book in record time.
Just as a change of scenery can change one’s emotional outlook, a change in research methods often clears the way to finishing a story.
What strategies do you use to stay motivated when your story is set in a place unfamiliar to you?