What follows is a brief blog of some of my research process while I was writing The Next Stage. I hope that it can give a glimpse into what I’ve been doing and why, and maybe it might help fellow writers with their writing too; although I’m no expert.
When I wrote Creatures, I pretty much just wrote what was in my head. Although it’s set in England, the town of Highfield wasn’t really based on any real place; it was just a small country town surrounded by fields and trees, with a secret underneath. I did little bits of research for parts of the plot and some of the descriptive elements, like the types of wildlife that would be in small woodland areas in England, but I didn’t do all that much. It just came out and got written down.
But, when it came to The Next Stage, and it’s setting, I thought it would be a good idea – for accuracy’s sake – to do a lot more.
I’m English, and although I’ve been to America, I’ve never been to Washington DC. DC seemed like the right place to set the book as it has many notable locations, and I could bring in some elements that I thought would really work for the plot.
So, having never been, where did I start?
First thing was getting a map of downtown DC and it’s surrounding area. Luckily this kind of thing is more accessible now with Google Maps and the like, without the need to go and buy a paper map and sit poring over it. Although in some ways, this would have been useful.
I found the locations at which key elements of the plot would occur. Some of these are major landmarks, others just streets, or nondescript buildings/apartment blocks. With the story being set way the future – and after a long, destructive war – I could tweak some of the city to fit.
Eventually, I ended up printing off sections of the map and – with the help of a handy cork notice board, post-it notes, and string – pegged out where these locations were and what happened at them. By the time I’d finished, it looked like I’d been tracking a killer, which on reflection was very apt. Once this was done and I was writing the story, I would revisit it on occasion and make alterations to the story where needed.
I would also use Google Street View for certain aspects to see what the streets actually looked like and have a better spatial awareness of what my characters would see or hear. Having this visual representation also helped work out how long it would take characters to get to certain places or what obstacles they might encounter. The fact that Google Street View is probably out of date doesn’t really matter in this case because, as I said, the story is set way in the future, so there would be plenty of changes between now and then anyway. I’d use Street View in tandem with the directions function so I could see approximate journey lengths between two places. I could also see what the difference would be if the character was either on foot or in a car. It would enable me to write certain activities in a more realistic and believable way. I didn’t want to have a character at X location move to Y in 10 minutes when in reality, it would take 30 or more with traffic.
For specific notable locations, I did as much research I could on them. I looked at the size of the place, what was near it, how the sun moved through the sky at different times of the day, what people could see if they looked out of a window on a particular floor. I would also imagine what those places might be like in the future. Would they still look the same? Would they have changed purpose? Would they have gone entirely? This came in particular use when thinking about what state the city would be in after the war where it had been a central location for the conflict.
All this being said, I’m going through my most recent draft and still referencing all the notes and research that I did months ago, so as much as it took quite a bit of time and work to put together, it was definitely worth it. But along with all this, I’m continuing with the research to be sure of what I’m looking at and that I portray it in the correct light.
I just hope that this effort to make the world of The Next Stage a little more realistic shines through in the writing, and it adds that little bit extra something for the reader.