The Crazy Things I Do For Setting Research...

Is it possible to set a fictional story in a place you've never been? Yes, but nothing can compare to actually experiencing that setting first hand. Not even detailed travelogues can give you all the vital information because you need to know the sounds, scents and feel of a place. The feel of a place might relate to the humidity, temperature, weather and unique landscape.
When I went to Scotland two years ago, I ended up at Kilt Rock on Isle of Skye during a gale. This storm wasn't like the storms we have where I live. This was more like a cold, mini tropical storm (and very short-lived.) The wind blew the rain sideways. I could hardly stand upright. Fortunately the wind was blowing east instead of west or it might have blown someone off the cliff. This was something I had never experienced before (aside from the tropical storm I was in once) and hadn't expected it in a chilly place like Scotland. But now that I have experienced a gale of this type I've included the information in a couple of stories. These sorts of weather details add authenticity and flavor to a story and make the reader feel they are in your setting.

Another thing I learned from on site research is that Scotland is much cooler and chillier in midsummer than I would've imagined. I'm from the Southern US and in June we wear shorts and short sleeves (and I'm a cold natured person.) In the Scottish Highlands, we wore sweaters and jackets in several layers. It was also very cloudy, rainy and blustery much of the time.

The traditional fuel of the Scottish Highlands and Islands (and Ireland) is peat. Soggy peat moss is cut from the ground in bricks, stacked to dry and then used much like wood to burn.

Since I write stories in historical settings, I needed to know what peat smoke smelled like. My first experiment in trying to learn this fact (before I'd traveled to Scotland) was to set ablaze some of the garden variety peat moss (from Canada.) Good thing my neighbors weren't watching. They would've thought I was trying to get high on peat moss. :) I learned it smelled bitter. But nothing can compare to smelling smoke from a genuine peat fire coming out the chimney of a thatched roof cottage on Isle of Skye. It was a the Skye Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir, but that made it no less authentic. The peat bricks had been dug locally. When we picked them up they were lightweight, much like a sponge. My writer friend and I stood outside sniffing and trying to analyze the scent while laughing at ourselves. Surely everyone would think we were crazy if they knew what we were doing. But sometimes you have to do crazy things in the name of research. The good thing about that is it's usually fun too.

What kind of crazy, fun or bizarre adventures have you had in writing research?

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housemouse88 said...

Not a writer here, so I don't do any research to speak of. Just wanted to say beautiful pictures. They are breath taking. Have a great day.

Eliza Knight said...

Fabulous post!

I agree that you can definitely write about a place you've never been, but nothing beats visiting there. Although I've never been to Scotland, I have been to Ireland, and I smelled the peat smoke, and found it comforting. I use a lot of my experiences from Ireland in my writing about Scotland. I've also been to France and use my experiences there a lot for my English settings.

I'm hoping to travel to England and Scotland in the next couple years. Your pictures are just beautiful!!! Plan on going back anytime soon? Would you visit the same place or go somewhere new?

Carol Ericson said...

Nothing beats visiting your setting for authenticity. I'm going to start working on a book half-way set in Maui. I've been there several times and it's a great setting for a book. A slice of The Gee Spot, coming from eRed Sage, this summer is set in Maui - had fun writing about the luau.

Ann Marie Gamble said...

I ordered some peat "bricks" from someplace like for research on a book that takes place in Ireland. We burned them in the grill on the back porch, not in the fireplace in our thatched cottage!

The other great thing about research adventures is that your family or friends can participate. So much of writing takes place alone, and it's nice to have something that you can do with others, talk about possibilities ("Could you possibly move out of the smoke?").

Vonda Sinclair said...

housemouse, thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures. I love taking them and can't wait to take more in Scotland. :)

Eliza, thanks! I'm glad you liked it! I've never been to Ireland but most of the places look like Scotland and I'm sure there are more similarities than differences, especially the landscape and weather. I'm planning to go back to Scotland next year. I'd love to visit some of the same places and spend more time at each one to absorb the atmosphere more and explore. But I also want to visit lots of new places, especially islands and castles, as well as the Borders area.

Carol, a Maui setting sounds awesome! I can't wait to read about it. I also can't wait to visit Hawaii myself for some research. :)

youpsy, what a smart idea to order the peat bricks and burn them in the grill! :) Yes, enjoying the research adventures with others is the best!

Pat McDermott said...

Vonda, what great pictures! Love that ever-in-the-distant sea that flavors and nurtures everything in the British Isles and Ireland. You don't have to be a writer to realize how easily legends sprang up in such remote places. The peat in Ireland is in the air everywhere. Thinking the fragrance might inspire my Irish stories, I ordered one of those little stone cottages that acts as a sort of incense burner, but you burn a tiny block of peat instead. Oh my goodness, we had to open all the windows, and we haven't burned it indoors since! Guess you need a real thatched cottage with a well-ventilated hearth. So I should go back . . . :-)

Carly Carson said...

I've been racking my brain trying to think of something interesting I've done for research, but nada. I'll think of it next week, lol.

I love your pictures of Scotland. It is such a fabulous country. Ireland, though similar, is not as evocative to me.


ShawnaMoore said...

Hi, Nicole!

I'm with you when it comes to visiting the places where we set our books. Nothing is better than experiencing the architectural, cultural, climate, and so many other details firsthand. Makes memories to last a lifetime.

My most interesting research happened while on a vacation in the Louisiana bayou. A couple interesting and ghostly encounters--one of which happened in the middle of the night. These encounters have factored themselves into a manuscript I'm hoping to have published someday :)

Happy week wishes,


Abby Niles said...

Ahh, beautiful pictures!!! My most intersting research so far as been going to a training session for MMA:)

Vonda Sinclair said...

Pat, thanks!! I love those sea pics too! LOL Too funny about the peat as incense. I can imagine you'd need either an open window or a chimney. I can't wait to go to Ireland one day soon.

Carly, thanks! Scotland is my favorite!

Shawna, ghostly encounters... awesome! Those are interesting for sure! I had one of those in Scotland too.

Esme, thanks! Yes, I bet MMA was interesting too.

Unknown said...

Beautiful pics! I've dreamed of visiting Scotland since I read my first Harlequin romance set there. So far, I've not been, but I love traveling there through books.

I set most of my books where I've lived - mostly in South Florida or Ohio but a few in Mississippi and Nebraska. I've never been able to get away from the kids and the day job long enough to take a trip to research but that's a dream for someday.

Mageela Troche said...

Loved the post. As a writer, I think getting the setting can truly make a story come to life. And I'll gladly admit that I would smell the peat too.

I'm thinking that writers should pen a travel guide listing details about the local that include the daily life details like the smell of peat.

Idaho Reefer said...

youpsy - If you received the peat you ordered from the scam artists at, then you did better than I did. They're merely purporting to resell peat from Bord na Móna (the people who dig it out of the ground), anyways, so you might as well order from the source and cut out the (dishonest) middle man. You can order peat straight from Bord na Móna at