The Little Things: Where to Find Unexpected Material for Stories
August 3, 2017
When I write, I find that sometimes researching or coming up with the minor details and material for stories takes up more time than I bargained for. Where should those characters go hiking, and what does the area look like? How do I come up with a quirky history for my protagonist’s eccentric grandmother? What should I name that secondary character? I just want to get to the good parts!
But minor tidbits of your story impact the authenticity of your world—and character-building. Here are some materials and research tactics I use for my creative writing projects when my progress feels slow.
In-scene details affect how a reader imagines a setting. These details often appeal to the five senses and to emotions. The best way to write about a place is to go there, but I can’t pop over to Europe or South America whenever I feel like it. So, I rely on Google Maps and travel blogs when I need location material for stories.
If you’re writing a scene in a place you can’t get to or have never visited, then your best bet is to creep the heck out of the area on Google Maps. I do this frequently. Google Maps has a lot of useful features aside from major roads, like hiking trails, some indoor maps, night sky maps, business maps, and more.
For my current creative writing project, part of the story takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve visited the city, but (for reasons too boring to explain) I didn’t make it to Arthur’s Seat, a distinctive landmark with great walking and hiking trails. Arthur’s Seat is the perfect setting for one of my story scenes, so I took a virtual hike to some old ruins. I knew that if I set my novel in a scenic place, then my details needed to be precise and descriptive to give readers an authentic experience. Those offhand, tiny details make all the difference.
I did this for a past novel as well. The story takes place in Chicago, a city I’ve never been to. I spent a lot of time on Google Maps making sure I knew how long it took to walk from one part of the city to another and to correctly describe landmarks and more. You can see the difference between an early draft and my latest draft:
I meet Harrison on the roof of police headquarters if he wants to talk to me. The commissioner also makes him take a few officers for “safety.” The commissioner is a careful man, and he and I don’t always play nice. But I take care of things the police can’t, so he puts up with me. Or he makes Harrison put up with me, anyway.
I flew south of Chicagoland, the metropolitan area of the city, to police headquarters. The trees lining Michigan Avenue sported fragile green buds, and I wondered if these signs of spring would withstand the schizophrenic weather that is Chicago in March.
Harrison was waiting for me on the roof of the boxy, brick and stone building. With at least five levels above ground, we never worried about onlookers overhearing us strategize. He saw me and waved his entourage of antsy police officers away. The Superintendent “requests” Harrison to take a few officers for safety when he deals with me. The Superintendent is a careful man, and he and I don’t always play nice, but I take care of things the police can’t, so he puts up with me. Well, he makes Harrison put up with me.
Google Maps gives you the visual information you need, but travel blogs or books give you the rest. A scene needs to appeal to more than sight. What does a place smell like? How does the weather feel? What are some city noises? What are some country noises? How do the people behave? Travel blogs or books include descriptions of how an area affects all five senses. You also get authentic, human opinions, all of which makes for great material for stories.
When writing scenes in my story that take place in Edinburgh, I’ll often review my journal of my travel experiences in Edinburgh. I wrote down many impressions or experiences that I’ve since forgotten over time, and that’s helped me make my character’s descriptions and reactions to the city more realistic.
Who Is This Person?
Some characters come fully formed in your head, and others … not so much. A few characters I write about I fully understand because their personalities may be similar to mine, so their actions and reactions seem obvious to me. But this is not always the case. Characters are not always—and should not always—be like you. This means getting to know them might take some more effort.
Personality Tests and More
I like to look up personality quizzes or “get to know you” questions for a character I’m having a hard time understanding. Figuring out how they would answer personality questions helps me understand how they deal with bigger or more nuanced issues in my stories.
In-depth personality quizzes, such as the Meyers-Briggs test or Color Code test, hone in on dominant or overarching personality traits. I find these helpful when I’m really at a loss for material for stories and what drives my character. These quizzes help me realize that a character who I was trying to write as an extrovert is actually an introvert. Or maybe my character isn’t curious so much as simply reckless.
You can use less serious personality quizzes, too. Light quizzes help me when I’m hopping between projects and main characters. Sometimes completing a few of these quizzes for your character will get you into your character’s head. On occasion, I’ve even used the Pottermore quiz to slip into a character’s headspace.
Now let’s talk about eccentric grandmas you only mention in passing in your story. You need a believable, snappy character history, and you need it quick so you can move on. Crack open some old journals or family histories for your own material for stories. Chances are, one of your ancestors was an odd or exciting individual. Swipe a few details, with permission if the individual is alive, and voila! Problem solved! If the family member isn’t alive, you can probably use whatever you want as long as people can’t easily trace the detail back to a single person.
I’ve found stories about stowaways on a ship, mining accidents, and more in some of my family’s histories. Genealogy can be a goldmine of details material for stories if you’re willing to spend a spare hour reading them.
What’s in a Name?
I think I spend more time on baby name websites than actual expectant parents do. I don’t mind taking a lot of time to decide on the perfect name for my protagonist and other main characters—I’ll be typing them a lot, after all. However, for secondary characters, browsing through hundreds of French female names on a baby name website is more time than I’m willing to spend on minor characters. Choosing some “ready-made names” is more helpful.
Obituaries hold tons of material for stories. You get names and life stories. I like to google an obituary list for a city far away from me and scroll through the names until I find one I like. If I need a last name, I’ll do the same thing. Generally, I only take bits and pieces of a name from an obit. I feel like a thief if I take a real person’s full name.
Movie Credits and Spam Email
I like to let movie credits roll for a bit if I’m hurting for a name. If you watch a blockbuster, you can get over three minutes of names upon names upon names to choose from. Plus, I can convince myself that watching the movie was for “research” and not down time. And there is a use for spam emails! Someone went to the trouble of sending you a fake name, so why not steal it for your story? What other use could those emails possibly have?
Getting through the minutiae of writing can be hard. But you can power through! The world holds an endless amount of inspiration, so when you’re stuck on setting or character or names, don’t despair. Look around you and there’s bound to be someone or something you can glean information from.
What are some unusual research materials or tactics you use for your writing projects?