Monday, May 23, 2011

Research for Sense of Place

Writers don’t always have to be from the place they write about or even visit there. But whenever possible, it is of great value to immerse yourself in the setting for those small details that book or on-line research can’t give you.

Montana is my inspiration—for my books and many other things in my life. The “Big Sky” stretches from horizon to horizon like a great blue dome. Its sunsets are unequaled, with streaks of orange and gold painting the edges. In spring, green-tinged hills roll through the landscape, buttered with bright yellow wildflowers. White-faced reddish-brown calves frolic through the meadow pastures, happy to be alive.

Spring in Montana often comes late, after a long, snow-filled winter that seems to last forever. After four or five months of isolation, cabin-fever, and bone-numbing cold, spring is the new awakening, a new beginning, a season of hope.

As the saying goes, “You can take the girl out of Montana, but you can’t take the Montana out of the girl.” There is always something palpable that washes over me when I crest the summit of Lookout Pass from the Idaho side and see the sign "Welcome to Montana." It is a warm sense of peace, a comfortable state of being.

Driving the road through Washington and Idaho that stretches like a long black ribbon, I have time to appreciate the beauty of our world—from the snow-capped ever-green mountains to wheat fields as golden as fresh-baked apple pie, from Washington's Columbia River Gorge and its cerulean blue against a mocha cliff backdrop, but the silvery sage of eastern Montana still whispers, "home."

Montana is the setting for my novels, Cowgirl Dreams and Follow the Dream, based on my grandmother who rode in rodeos during the 1920s and ’30s. In 1999, with a sense of adventure, I made a trip to Cut Bank and Sunburst, Montana to do research for my book.

I wanted to locate the first ranch where my grandparents had lived when they were married in 1923. The only thing I knew was that it was the "old Davis Place under the rims" near Sunburst. I really didn't think I would be able to find it with that vague bit of information. I started at the courthouse in Cut Bank, the county seat. Everyone knew where "the rims" were, but the younger clerks didn't know this particular ranch, of course. Someone remembered an "old timer" who had worked in records years ago. I called and the gentleman said he remembered it was a few miles west of Sunburst.

Finally, I located a cousin of my dad’s, who gave me directions. The owners were gracious enough to let me drive through their ranch to the location. "Just drive about a mile and a half and look for a grove of cottonwood trees."

Imagine my surprise and awe to find the house still standing, although in bad repair, and being used as a cattle shelter. I spent about an hour there, taking pictures and imagining what the newlyweds must have felt like, living in this beautiful place "under the rims." This is the backdrop for Cowgirl Dreams, where the dreams began.

What special or exotic settings have you researched for your writing?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. I set my first novel ms in southern IL so I could learn more about where my mother grew up--she never spoke of it. I'd been to her grandfather's farm once when I was a girl and based the family farm of two fictional brothers, Joe and Deke Turner, on it. Imagine my shock when I found it-- via a map hand-drawn to my mother's cousin's specifications--to discover this name on its mailbox: "J. Turner." I've had other instances like that too, where my research affirmed what my imagination had invented. Creepy, but cool!

  2. There are many historical villages in our area and I love using them as setting and inspiration.

  3. I set my first book in central Oregon, where I'd visited and my sister-in-law lives. I had the broad brush strokes, and she gave me the details. For the next one, I didn't want to keep bothering her, so I set it in my neighborhood in Orlando. Now that I've relocated to the Colorado mountains, I'm enjoying incorporating that scenery into my new writing. Something about driving through the mountains, with the deep red cliffs, the green pines, and the ever-changing greens of the aspens--with the Rockies in the background never gets old.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Just the name conjures up an almost mystical reality. Having spent only one summer month in the state, I have my own view of the state. Still, my experience there was enough to inspire my own take on the West, which takes the form of a short story called Leaving Montana.

  5. I just wrote a 5k word short story about the war in Croatia that made one of my readers think that I'd been there. That really stroked my ego, since I have never been there and in fact was 7 years-old when the events of my story took place.

  6. I write science fiction, so it may at first seem like today's post doesn't apply to me. However, one of my favorite places was Yellowstone National Park. With all the hot springs and geysers... and that sulfur smell all around you... you really feel like you're on an alien planet.

    Mesa Verde in Colorado was another good one. Ancient Native American tribes carved their dwellings into the sides of the cliffs, and standing there now you can almost feel what life was like for them... it was a very different kind of civilization. Not alien necessarily, but not familiar either.

    Lastly, there's an abandoned quarry within walking distance of my house. No strange smells, no other way-of-life... but there's still something unearthly about the place. It’s become one of my favorite places to write.

  7. Writers more accomplished than I have said 'write about that which you know' ... which, while certainly sage advice, would severely limit my writing ... thank goodness for the Internet!

  8. How wonderful that must have been - to find the house still standing.

    I set things in places I know, although I tend to add in things or places that are not there except in my story.

  9. I'm not sure I've ever researched an exotic setting, but I had some pretty haunting parts of England, wreathed in mist of course, in mind when I wrote Black Widow.

  10. I grew up in extreme eastern Montana, and I now live in Billings, MT.

    My parents' ranch is so different than what the average out-of-stater thinks of when he or she pictures Montana. It's full of rolling prairie and the badlands, and the wildlife looks different than in the western part of the state, if you know what to look for. My folks can't see their neighbors' houses, and we can see 50 miles to the west and all the way to North Dakota in the east.

    My stories have either been set in Montana, a fantasy world of my creation, or in Seattle, which I visited last year. I'm very hesitant to use a setting to which I've never traveled.

    Incidentally, if you'd like to use Montana as a setting, a lady in northern Montana, Kari Lynn Dell, runs a blog called "Montana for Real." She chronicles what daily life is like on a working ranch, and will answer just about any question you have. Her url is

  11. Great advice! I'm tweeting about this great post.

  12. I set my first novel in Seattle, Washington because it was a place I'd always wanted to visit.

    My current novel is set in Las Vegas for specific reasons: the homeless population and the crime rate. It's also a place I've always wanted to visit.

    Since I've never been, I've had to do a lot of research (fortunately have some Twitter friends who've been a tremendous help) to make sure I have the setting and feel of the area correct.

    I don't mind the research, however. Learning new things is one of the best parts of writing!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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