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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Strategy # 1 Habitat Highways: Interview with Sarah Sundin

Build Your Story: 8 Strategies for Writing Innovative Setting with Impact

So far our habitat discussion leans towards the concept that we get to choose the locations of our choice to match our desired tone and atmosphere. But what happens when our settings are mandatory? How do we connect them to our characters?

We welcome award-winning author Sarah Sundin, who is known for her impeccable research and page-turning WWll novels. She has an extraordinary interactive map on her website at Sarah is the author of On Distant Shores and With Every Letter in the Wings of the Nightingale series from Revell, and also the Wings of Glory series. Her new novel In Perfect Time (Wings of the Nightingale, Book Three) releases this week.

Sarah, thank you for joining us. Please share some advice on how to create a meaningful setting, when you’re bound by historical settings, and any other suggestions for habitat authenticity you have discovered.

Read deep, marcy

Sarah Sundin
Writing fiction set in actual locations, either contemporary or historical, is both restricting and inspiring. Restricting in that we’re bound by reality, but inspiring since reality often provides story or character ideas.

My newest novel, In Perfect Time, takes place during World War II in Italy, France, India, and the United States. Because my characters, a flight nurse and a C-47 pilot, follow the Allied advance, the novel is mobile and involves over thirty unique settings. Each of those needed to be researched. Each needed that 3-D cinematic feel to put the reader squarely into the setting.

Ideally we could visit each setting, but time and money often make that impossible. Here are some tips for creating meaningful settings.

1) Visit
Whenever possible, visit your story settings. While researching the Wings of the Nightingale series, I was blessed to be able to visit Italy and southern France. Do your research before you visit and list everything you want to see. While there, take lots of notes, pictures, and video—you can also use some of this for promotion when the book releases. Watch for sensory details, especially sounds, smells, tastes, and the weather—things you won’t read in books. Pick up brochures, maps, and books to prod your memory when you return. When possible, talk to the locals to learn customs. If you’re writing a historical novel, keep in mind how the setting has changed over time. Visit local museums and libraries for historical context.

2)  Maps
Maps are extremely useful research tools. I’ve used AAA maps, historical maps, and Google Maps. I’ve also drawn maps. For my Wings of Glory series, I drew a map of Antioch, California, penciling in real businesses as well as my fictional businesses and homes, to make sure my characters took the proper streets and turned in the proper direction.

I adore Google Maps’ “man-on-the-ground” feature. Look for the little stick-figure guy on the map’s key, pick him up with your mouse, and drop him on any of the blue-highlighted roads. You’ll have a panoramic view. You can virtually drive down these roads and study the buildings and landscape. Since I write historicals, I have to keep in mind how things change, but this feature helps me remember places I’ve visited and helps me visualize places I’ve never seen.

3) Read
Books and websites provide many of the details you need for realistic settings. For a short scene, a quick hop to a Wikipedia page may be all you need. As a historical fiction writer, I rely a lot on books for information, especially about how things were during World War II.

4    4)  Firsthand Accounts
If you can’t visit a location, try to interview someone who’s been there. Remember to ask about sensory details and local customs for that “been there” feel. For historicals, look for journals, memoirs, or oral histories to provide color. Reading accounts from WWII nurses and soldiers told me about the serious mud problem in “sunny Italy,” the sound artillery shells make when they go overhead, and the stuffiness and odors on the C-47 air evacuation flights.

      5)   Local Newspapers
When available, local newspapers are rich sources of information. My upcoming WWII Christmas novella in Where Treetops Glisten (Waterbrook, September 2014) is set in Lafayette, Indiana. While visiting, I spent several hours poring over microfiche for the Lafayette Journal and Courier. These papers showed me businesses, restaurants, prices, where to buy Christmas trees, the weather, and more!

     6)   Museums, Parks, and Experts
Museums and national parks are wonderful resources, especially for the historical fiction writer. Even if you can’t visit in person, their websites offer lots of information.

When in doubt, ask! Even if you’re an introvert (I am). Experts love to share. Several scenes in In Perfect Time are set at the historic Mayo Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which I did not visit. One reason I chose the Mayo was the extensive website with lots of historical photos. However, most of the photos were in public areas like the lobby. On a lark, I sent an email through their contact page. They responded! And the gentleman provided information on the hallway carpet, the elevator, and the room layout. Pure gold! And yes, I thanked him on the acknowledgments page in the book.

With a little work and a little creativity, you can craft settings so realistic that your readers will say, “I felt like I was there!”

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