Mindy Hardwick's Blog

Author Mindy Hardwick Muses about Writing

Researching Setting

on March 22, 2014

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It’s SOLVE’s Spring Beach clean-up weekend in Oregon and I’ve got my bucket and sifter all ready to comb through the sand for those small bits of plastic and other trash items which wash up on the Oregon beaches during the fall and winter storms.

I, like most Oregonians and Pacific Northwest folks, love the Oregon Coast. So, when I find stories which are set on the Oregon Coast, I jump at the chance to read them.

But when stories don’t live up to their settings, I get a little miffed, especially when it’s settings which I know well.

For example, one of the things which makes the Oregon Coast different than other beaches and extremely special is the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill which allows free access to the beach to everyone. There can never be any development on these beaches. They are free and open to the public. People and hotels who own property, do not own the beach. So, books that have a premise of development taking over the beaches, this does not happen on the Oregon Coast.

As a part of this free beaches, dogs run free on Oregon Coast beaches. Yep..that’s right. As long as my dog is under voice control, he is free to be off his leash and running with up and down beside me and with the other dogs.

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Food! Portland has lovely food carts everywhere. It is a part of Portland culture. You can take walking tours of these food carts. But, a city like Cannon Beach does not have food carts. In Cannon Beach, you can not even cut down a tree–whether it’s dead or not–without getting a letter from a tree expert and going through City Council. Every summer, there is a great market in mid-town, but did you know, it’s geared more for the locals than tourists? Yep. This is not to say that tourists don’t attend, but, the market is designed for the people who live in Cannon Beach so they can buy fresh produce from local farmers.

So, what’s an author to do to make sure they don’t end up with errors in their setting? Research. And, research well.

1. Read the local papers. A good chunk of these are on-line. For example, if you’re reading Cannon Beach’s newspapers right now, you’ll know that there have been issues with the Seaside School District and a group who wants to start a Cannon Beach Charter School, after Seaside closed down the Cannon Beach elementary school and the kids all ride buses to Seaside. Now, you’re saying, so the kids go to a different town to go to school, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that in the winter storms with the heavy winds and in the possibility of tsunamis, those same kids may not be able to return to their homes in the event of emergencies. So, by reading the paper, you not only learn about the conflicts of the town, but look..I’ve also just discovered some great plot points–weather!

2. Weather Reports–We don’t have hurricanes on the West Coast. We have “winter wind storms.” But, if you’re out at the beach, they can feel an awful lot like hurricanes. We also don’t have basements in most of our houses, and we don’t have air conditioning in the Pacific Northwest homes because it’s just too cool in the summer to need it beyond a couple weeks. But these things are important to a story because your character isn’t going to head for the basement in the middle of a winter wind storm, unless they are living in an older home build around 1910 or so.  And in most cases, your character isn’t going to reach for that air conditioning dial, they are going to get a fan and open windows and sliding glass doors to let in the fresh breeze.

3. The Locals: On the way to the beach, my sister and I stopped at Astoria and had a late lunch, early dinner at a very cool pub. This is the off season at the beach, and so the majority of the people at the pub were from this area. We were sitting near the bar and a guy was talking about how they could pay in advance for a “pint of the month” club. He was explaining to another man how they were given a number and then told the bartender this number and got to try out the latest microbrew. Very cool stuff which we only discovered by going to a local pub and listening.

4. City Government Websites: Research to find out about the city and their laws by going to the city’s website. For example, when you pull up Cannon Beach’s city website, you can easily go to a page which lists all the restrictions in Cannon Beach. These can be great ways to find conflict for a story. What happens to the newbie who has a garage sale one Saturday morning and the city councilman lives two doors down and comes charging down the street to tell her you need a permit?

As a writer, it’s really important to do the research on your setting. You can fool a lot of people, but the locals who live in that place or the ones who visit on a regular basis will know when your story rings true to the place they love.

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